The COVID-19 pandemic that forced people to stay at home also elevated the value that the home environment brings to the quality of life. In many cases, a fireplace is at the center of that value.
In 2004, Bob Khan, executive director of Fireplace Warehouse, was among the first to start selling fireplaces online. “I was just seeing there was an opportunity for customers who didn’t have access to a local shop or didn’t want to buy everything from the local dealer for various reasons,” he said. Before 2020, about half of the company’s business was online sales. “The pandemic intensified that 1,000 percent,” he said.
COVID-related shutdowns drove more business online, and Khan and his team helped customers from all over find products and connect with installers. Even as things have returned to normal, online sales have remained high. “Now the demographic of customer, instead of just being in your service area, is basically the whole United States, as well as we’ve shipped all over the world,” Khan says. “That’s here to stay.”
So is the experience of finding enjoyment in home surroundings, he says. “What we’ve seen with the pandemic is that the outdoor living area has really grown now,” Khan says. “The home almost becomes like a resort. There are a lot more people who have the ability to get what they want with flexible financing and it allows them to make their home into this amazing focal place to be there with their family and kids and not have to leave.”
Joe Womack, managing partner at Fireplace Warehouse, says the company has conducted research that shows people value the hearth, fireplace, fire pit, and outdoor cooking in terms of socialization, relaxation, and what it represents versus the indoor kitchen. Fireplace features also bring a return on the investment in the home and lead to the likeliness and willingness to close more quickly on a home sale for a builder, Womack says.
Fireplace Warehouse—a Colorado staple for more than 25 years—averages about 5,000 commercial high-end custom work and production builders’ installations a year. Installations have included a number of senior living centers, McGregor Square and the Monarch Casino Resort Spa in Black Hawk. Womack also added that the Fireplace Warehouse is now donating a percentage of their profit to the Invisible Disabilities Association.
In addition to the pandemic, the Marshall Fire—which destroyed 1,084 buildings in Boulder County—also drove home the value of a fireplace, Womack says. Fireplace Warehouse is involved with the Metro Denver Home Builders Association and was asked to co-chair a technology task force for the fire’s victims.
“It was Bob’s and my job to go around to all of the home builders and subcontractors to home builders and ask them what special extra discount will they do for these homeowners who have been through this unbelievable horror in their house, with their possessions and lifelong memories burned to the ground,” Womack says. “They’re all saying that warmth, that comfort, that hearth—they can’t wait to have it back. We’ve got one lady who wants to put in what often would be a commercial setup and make it the centerpiece in redesigning the home.”
Khan notes that retailers and custom builders are looking to differentiate themselves from their competition by providing a fireplace—whether it be in the master bedroom, great room or even outdoors—in a way that’s aesthetically pleasing to the eye. Some people are installing large television screens above their fireplaces by finding a way to keep the wall beneath the screen cool.
“That’s made possible by dynamic heat control, which actually keeps the wall very cool to the touch,” Khan says. “There’s either a vent or reveal at the top that allows that heat to still come into the house. It creates a very cool touch wall for their kids and they’re still getting the full benefit of the heat from the fireplace coming into the house. That makes it very efficient.”
Khan sees fireplace styles moving from the traditional look that was popular in the 1990s and 2000s to what he calls transitional, with manufacturers enabling fog, stone or glass features.
“You have all these different options that were never available before and really fits the decor and what the homeowner is looking for,” Khan says. “They come in sizes from 36 inches to 400 inches in length, depending on how big you want to go on somebody creating custom-built homes. You can pull the height as well. You can have a viewing area of 20 inches or as high as three feet if it’s going to be a focal point. It gives you a lot of different options. When I first got into industry in 2004, you just had these basic fireplaces. And now you can do anything you want that’s available and customizable.”
Other options include log kits, firestones or glass media. “We have globe spheres they can put in,” Khan says. “They can do sun reflective panels, brick panels or a combination of those things and make it look as custom as they want to.”
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In addressing the correct way to install fireplaces, Khan notes if the clearances aren’t maintained or the vents aren’t installed properly, not only will the fireplace not run well but also “theoretically, you could burn their house down.” Khan says using certified installers is key to ensuring safety.
Looking toward the future, Khan sees electric fireplaces playing a big role. “They’re designing them now to look so realistic and actually produce heat,” he says. “You can run them on 220 volts, so you get twice the heat output of an electric than you ever used to and the flames actually look really good. You may have a basement or somewhere you’re going to put it where there’s no way to vent it or get gas to it. Now you have an electric that looks really nice and fits your décor.”
Mark Humphrey, Fireplace Warehouse president, serves on the Hearth, Patio & Barbecue Association. He’s responsible for creating the curriculum with the rest of the board members for the National Fireplace Institute (NFI) certification and Master Hearth Professional, which is akin to a master plumber or electrician, Womack says. Humphrey is also involved with industry research and development regarding the physics of a fire with a robust flame and plenty of warmth, and he’s an “industry guru” in the technical side of fireplaces, grills and fire pits and whether to use solid fuels like wood and pellet, or natural gas and propane.
“He’s a pioneer in the transition to electrification, particularly in Colorado, one of the leading states in that area,” Womack says. “He is regularly in Washington, D.C., talking about that topic with the NFI in helping people recognize the proper pace toward electrification: how do we go with warmth in this segment when electric fireplaces really don’t provide warmth?”