Long story: Letter to Builders and Architects.
Monterey Masonry is now offering the Phenix Green Zero Clearance Fireplace.
Yes, I’ve been building turbo-charged Rumford fireplaces since 1971. Been in the Berkshires since 1982. I still think nothing compares to a well-built open fireplace. Fireplaces have been our bread and butter.
Engineers have calculated that an open fireplace is inefficient. Engineers design machines. If Le Corbusier was right, that a house is a machine for living, then engineers would design houses. But architects design houses. There is such a thing as aesthetic efficiency.
On a cold night I know that many hundreds of my open fireplaces are burning from Naushon Island off Cape Cod to Vashon Island in Puget Sound. Clients I have long forgotten call to say how much they love their fireplaces. Clients demand fireplaces. Why? There is such a thing as emotional efficiency.
The fireplace as we know it was a technology of the 17th and 18th century. Houses were cold and drafty. Fires were smoky. Here in New England the fireplace was the only heat and the only means of cooking food. Your fireplace had to work well or you froze and starved. Some worked better than others. Fortunately wood was beyond plentiful.
Before the American Revolution the science of fireplaces reached its zenith in the work of Count Rumford, who studied and solved the problems of fireplaces that smoked and would not draw. He was a guy from Rumford, Maine, which was then part of Massachusetts, a Tory who backed the British in the American Revolution. He was clever in many fields and is sometimes referred to as the “Tory Benjamin Franklin.” After the war he scooted back to Britain where the English “King” made him Count Rumford like jazz musicians named Count Basie.
In his fireplace research Rumford figured out that a narrow throat would draw better than a large throat. That went against common sense. He stumbled upon what physics professors would later call the Venturi Principle, which says that air moving through a tube will increase in speed if the diameter of the tube is reduced. Rumford narrowed the throat! His fireplaces drew. He changed the jambwall angles so they threw heat.
The fireplace as primary heating source disappeared with the age of iron in the early 19th century. The age of iron saw the disappearance of wooden battleships, the astringent harpsichord morphing into the big roaring iron piano, and the fireplace being supplanted by the cast iron woodstove. Cheaper, more architecturally flexible, and in some ways safer, the woodstove warmed the parlor, baked the bread in the kitchen, heated the railroad station and the general store. A fireplace began to seem flat and two-dimensional. A wood stove was 3D. You could gather around a woodstove, just like a campfire. But that campfire smoke in your face was magically piped up the chimney. Woodstoves still have that quiet magic. All over New England people ripped out their old kitchen fireplaces and replaced them with iron cook stoves. Instead of a primary heat source, the fireplace, the “hearth”, became symbolic, iconic. The fireplace became decoration.
For generations the knowledge of how to build a good fireplace had been passed down through the trade of masonry. But like the discoveries of Rumford, that knowledge disappeared. From the Victorian period through the Craftsman movement and into the period of Frank Lloyd Wright, we saw the fireplaces morph through wild, symbolic, and dramatic appearances; but they remained still just air-sucking boxes that didn’t throw heat. It didn’t matter. Coal in an iron furnace was your heat.
By the 1920s we were in the age of oil; the cast iron wood stove and now the coal stove, like the fireplace before them, disappeared as a heat source and appeared as a nostalgic symbol. The cold winter doldrums of the 1920s had the “hot stove league,” which hearkened to some old white-bearded geezers hunkered around a potbellied wood/coal stove at the Cooters Corners General Store, arguing about Ty Cobb. A hot stove was an anachronism.
All through the 40s, 50s, and 60s it was oil. Cheap, extracted without problem, from the far away, exotic Middle East. Turn up the thermostat. I learned to drive at 33¢ a gallon.
Then came the oil crisis of the early 1970s. Suddenly Americans rediscovered wood heat. That’s where I came in. I was a mason living in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and everyone wanted a wood stove. The old became new age; became chic. I installed many a stove for the Bow and Arrow Stove Company at the corner of Bow and Arrow Street, near Harvard. We delivered a stove to the home of a Harvard professor who wanted to lower his oil bills. He was astonished and furious when I told him his new stove would require a chimney. “The wood stove salesman never told me I would need a chimney.” I tried to explain that from what I’d seen even a nuclear reactor plant required a chimney. Ya burn something … you know, smoke.
Suddenly wood stoves were all over. Americans demanded stoves that would burn all night. Stoves were made that could be damped way down. The Vermont Castings was that thing. The tar-rich smoke they emitted departed the stove cool, and in the cold chimney it solidified into highly flammable hardened solid smoke crud called creosote. These slow burning wood stoves caused lots of chimney fires. The stove companies reached out to automotive technology and sold stoves with catalytic converters … that failed miserably. It was a bad time for stoves and oil prices went back down. By the 80s and early 90s stoves were again in the doldrums.
Now we find ourselves in the two thousand teens. Oil is expensive again. But now there are new concerns; efficiency; air pollution; energy efficiency has been formalized through building codes into law. Houses now are air tight or almost air tight. Where does wood heat come in? Wood stoves are really efficient now, with secondary and tertiary burns that reduce emissions drastically. We bring in outside combustion air to stoves and fireplaces to adapt these holdovers from the un-insulated and drafty past. Your adored Vermont Castings wood stove from the 1970s is now an antiquated, energy-wasting, polluting fire hazard, and Vermont Castings fired everyone in Randolph, Vermont, and now casts in the low-wage paradise of China.
Now, in the first quarter of the 21st century, for the poorly built energy-sucking fireplace we have fireplace inserts like our best-selling Wittus H530 or the Morsø, both from Denmark. These units burn closed behind a glass door, like a stove, but they are designed to slide into an existing fireplace. They use the masonry of the old firebox to comply with building code fire clearances.
The advantages of zero-clearance?
It’s light-weight and doesn’t need a masonry foundation to support it. It is highly insulated and has reduced clearances to combustibles. You don’t need a mason to install it! You can plaster or sheetrock right up to it. A good builder can put it in. It is made in a factory and tested. Unlike a fireplace built by an old mason like me, its heating capabilities are quantifiable.
Historically the zero-clearance fireplace was crudely engineered and poorly made out of the cheapest materials by the lowest-paid workers in the third world. It had a short throwaway lifespan, further shortened by normal usage. The standard zero-clearance fireplace exhibits race-to-the-bottom quality and cost-engineered elimination of all aesthetic qualities, guaranteed to give your home that motel and “time-share” ambiance.
On the low end of the scale you have a thing like the Majestic brand. Surely the apex of junkiness. When you toss a log into a Majestic it sounds like you are tossing it into a Maytag clothes dryer. Ouch! But Majestics are cheap. I have seen dozens of architects spec Majestics in million dollar homes. As we say in the trade, if you can’t distinguish the difference in the quality, why pay more?
Now with all that said, why are we selling zero-clearance fireplaces?
Well, for several reasons. We found these European zero-clearance fireplaces that are made with a completely different attitude. They are very well-engineered, beautifully made of high-end materials, and highly efficient. If your program calls for a zero-clearance, these are the best. We can stand them, and stand by them. For years we have installed the Optifire zero-clearance fireplace manufactured by Bodart and Gonay.
2013 brings the introduction to the US market of the Phenix Green series, also made in Belgium by Bodart and Gonay and imported by Wittus. The first Phenix Green in Berkshire County, the 120, was recently installed in Sheffield. These units offer state-of-the-art technology, high efficiency (up to 82%!), and burn with the sliding door closed or open. The heat generated by the Phenix Green can be circulated to heat up to 6 rooms. You want that cutting-edge technology? Here’s your fireplace. You want a zero-clearance fireplace to match the high level of craftsmanship in your home? Here’s your fireplace. You want a contemporary fireplace that is low and wide and takes a 36” log? Here’s your fireplace: the Phenix Green 120. You want the square shape of a Federal fireplace in a traditional home? It’s the Phenix Green 75. You want a glass door that slides silently up and down and tips out for easy cleaning? Here’s your fireplace: the Phenix Green. Want to heat six rooms? The Phenix Green.
On top of everything else that is great about the Phenix Green, we have just learned that the Phenix Green meets the new European and US Passive House requirements. To learn about Passive House requirements and all of the benefits, click here.
Essentially the Phenix Green is a beautiful, cutting-edge core that may be adapted to your personal style from 17th to 21st century décor. It’s a game changer. What the iPhone was to the telephone, the Phenix Green is to the fireplace.
I feel the Phenix Green’s amazing heating capabilities are best designed into a house rather than retrofitted. This isn’t a wood stove or fireplace anymore, delivering all its heat from one spot. Heating 4,5, 0r 6 rooms requires a fair amount of ductwork. 4” B-Vent insulated pipe for the Optifire and 6” B-Vent for the Phenix Green. Clearly easier to fit pipe on a drawing than to retrofit.
After forty years, the Phenix Green changed my mind on the zero-clearance issue. And perhaps if you stop to check the Phenix Green out, your mind will change too.