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"When water goes to bed at night, fire comes out to play." —Chris Anderson, Custom Design Pools & Landscaping
Although it's difficult to quantify in specific numeric terms, few would question the notion that fire features have enjoyed a long period of sustained growth in the pool business. Once considered exotic, poolside fire is now a common addition to a project.
"A couple years ago, the Masters Pool Guild did a survey and fire was identified as the No. 1 add-on feature to pools and spas," says Kevin Doud, CEO of Grand Effects, a manufacturer of fire features and components. "The growth has been fantastic. These days, when you look at award-winning projects, probably two-thirds of them have some type of fire feature.
"As we know," he adds, "the concept of the outdoor living space, where you take the inside outside, has been a huge trend for years now. Fire has become an essential element in creating those environments."
While it may be easy to go into clichés when describing why so many homeowners love fire, working with fire does mean appreciating its fundamental appeal.
"We see it as kind of elemental, as in earth, water and fire," says Ryan Hughes, owner of Ryan Hughes Design Build (Palm Harbor, Fla.). "It's a rugged element that draws people's attention and creates powerful ambiance. It brings the space to life with light, warmth and animation, and it becomes a social hub. When we have gatherings at our house or go to other people's home where there's fire present, everyone gravitates toward the fire pit. It's human nature to want to be near fire."
Hughes' firm has become well known for its highly creative and often elaborate designs. He credits that rise in popularity to his company's early acceptance and enthusiasm for fire.
"Back in the early 2000s we were among the first to have fire in our portfolio, and it was something that really separated us from much of our competition," he recalls. "Now, as it's become more and more popular, it's almost like we've become pigeonholed to some degree because every project has fire on it. Because we're always working to stay current and push the creative envelope, we've become more and more creative with how we use fire in the landscape."
Indeed, as is true of any aspect of exterior design, the way fire is incorporated into a setting has evolved.
"These days we are seeing a trend toward more minimalist designs, so we've been using fire in ways that are less ornate," Hughes says. "We've had clients who've said they want fire everywhere, and it's gotten to the point with some that we encourage them to pull back to some extent. If you stay current with architectural trends beyond the pool industry, you see that things are become more modern and simplistic.
"However it's used," he adds, "fire is never going away. It's one of those elements that will always be essential to outdoor living."
According to Chris Anderson, co-owner of Custom Design Pools (Houston, Texas), the power of visualization is key when working with clients to create a fire element.
"In terms of communicating with the client, first and foremost has been the integration of fire into Pool Studio," he says. "It gives you the ability to show it to the client as opposed to explain it."
That's true for the entire setting, he adds, but it's especially effective when considering fire features. "The pool industry is made up of brochures, but that's not the same thing as actually seeing it in the design," he says. "Rather than simply showing them an image of what the feature looks like, we can show them what it will look like in the place that it's actually going to be. Aesthetically, with Pool Studio, it's pretty easy to sell."
In terms of design, fire is used in two distinct ways: as a visual accent and/or as a social hub. In the purely aesthetic context, fire is used either in direct conjunction with a pool or spa structure or placed away from the water in the landscape.
"You don't have to be a high-end company to work outside the pool. We're seeing companies across the spectrum turn to fire," Doud says. "A lot of our builders just focus around the pool with fire bowls, or they might do a fire pit. I think a lot of builders are missing out on an opportunity to define the area. We sell a lot of features for fire pit applications but most of them are going to landscape professionals, not the pool industry. That doesn't make sense to me because the fire pit can become a great destination."
"It's more of an accent aesthetically, perhaps less of a focal point in many designs," Hughes says. "But the functionality of it, that ability to draw people towards and create social spaces, that will always be a powerful design element. We did a project recently where the fire pit was in the center of the pool where you walk across stepping pads and then step down into an area where you're surrounded by water and sitting by the fire. That's kind of an extreme example, but because the real estate around a fire pit is so valuable, we're doing more with custom benches and the entire setting."
"We don't sell fire pits anymore from the traditional standpoint of the familiar donut; there's so much more you can do with it creatively," Anderson says. "I like to take a pedestal and take one of these beautiful bowls and put it on the top of that pedestal. Now, during the day when the fire's not burning, you still see a beautiful bowl on the decks that works as a visual centerpiece instead of an ugly ring with some lava rocks in the middle."
On the purely decorative side, fire features have taken on a variety of shapes and sizes in order to accommodate different types of styles and settings. Fire bowls, fire and water combos, lanterns, torches and gas-burning fireplaces have all become familiar. Among the more recent features to gain popularity, linear fire elements in particular have caught on in a big way, particularly in geometric or contemporary designs.
"Linear features are great and they've definitely gained in popularity, but most people still consider them a contemporary look so they're probably not going to fit into all designs," Anderson says. "Small chandelier features are kind of the same way, they're not for every design but in the right setting they can be fantastic."
Perhaps the most significant development has been the creative expansion of vessel design, where the object that holds the burner becomes a design element — in some cases, it's a sculptural work of art on its own.
"We spend a lot of time on the piece that the fire goes into," Doud says. "There are projects where the pool is almost purely visual and rarely ever used but the homeowners want to look at it from inside the house or other key focal points. You want features that look like they belong there. Even if they're not fancy, you want the materials and the shapes to fit in visually even during the day when the fire's not on. "
"Features with water integrated into the fire bowls, those are great for the same reason," says Anderson. "During the day when the fire's off, it still adds visual interest and enhances the setting."
Regardless of how it's applied, designers working with fire generally agree that its popularity is not a flash in the pan. In fact, those interviewed for this discussion see it as a permanent fixture in the overall design palette.
"It might sound cliché, but with fire and water, you can't have two basic elements that work better together, Doud says. "When people go camping they usually want to be by some body of water and then sit around the campfire at night. Same thing applies in the backyard."
"It's certainly one of the key elements in many designs and that's not ever going to change," Hughes says. "Styles and trends might come and go, but fire will remain an essential in outdoor living. It's primal, we're hardwired to gravitate toward it because fire almost always has that captivating effect."
Like water, fire comes with inherent risks — therefore, safety comes first. Here's a brief overview of how to approach fire in a safe and sensible way.
Barry Justus, owner of Poolscape, a design and construction firm in Burlington, Ont., has taught popular seminars on the safe and effective use of fire. While he is enthusiastic about fire in the landscape, he also sounds a cautionary note based largely on feedback he's received during his presentations.
"In those classes, it's surprising how many people have had problems or even injured themselves," he says. "Manufacturers have done a good job of providing instructions that keep builders and their clients safe — things like ventilation requirements or proximity to combustible materials and other issues. But I do believe as an industry we need to do a better job of following those guidelines."
• Find a competent gas-line installation contractor who will be able to size and install gas lines properly. Requirements about who can install gas lines vary from state to state. Systems with automatic ignition systems also require competent electrical installation.
• Be aware of and comply with all local regulations. Different states, counties and municipalities often have varying code requirements, while some inspectors are more stringent than others.
• Use products approved by Underwriters Laboratories and/or Canadian Standards Association, which test products to nationally recognized ANSI standards. Doing so reduces liability for everyone involved in the projects.
Although there are products on the market that are approved by lesser-known testing laboratories, or some from overseas that carry no such certification, some inspectors and local codes will require UL or CSA listing for approval.
• Observe manufacturer installation guidelines. For example, manufacturers dictate that fire features be minimum distances from combustible material and have specific venting requirements in some settings.
• Use common sense. Because fire does prose potential hazards, locate fire features with desired activities and traffic patterns in mind. Placing fire immediately adjacent to a slide or play structure where it could be in close proximity to active children, for example, is probably not advisable.
When and where customers should activate their features presents another tricky issue when working with fire. With the advent of smartphone-based remote technology, popular for things like pre-heating spas, homeowners now have the ability to turn on their fire features when they're nowhere in sight. Perhaps not even on the property.
That, says manufacturer Kevin Doud, is ill-advised. "There are any number of reasons you should be able to see the fire feature when you're igniting it," he says. "You want to be sure there's no combustible material that's found its way into the feature and you certainly want to be sure that no one's too close when it's being lit.
"That's why," he adds, "we strongly recommend not using your smartphone to turn on the fire when you're not there to be sure it's safe."
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