In 2014, evidence of a 300,000-year-old fire was discovered in a cave in Israel and is believed to be the earliest known example of what we today call a fire pit. Interestingly, the early stone rings and pits used by primitive humans are in many respects the same as the modern pits we see today: fireproof materials were used to create a structure that provides both convenient proximity to the flames while at the same time containing them to prevent injury or damage.

Of course, today's fire pits, fire rings and fire bowls (for the purpose of this discussion we'll call them "fire pits") have come a long way in terms of design and construction. They now constitute one of the most popular items in residential landscapes, adding not only physical warmth, but also emotional warmth, romance and a sense of togetherness. People tell their fondest stories around fire pits and share their deepest insights; they sing, play instruments, fall in love, eat, drink and raise children.

And everyone, as the saying goes, looks better by firelight.

That profound, intrinsic appeal has not been lost on homeowners as they seek to upgrade their outdoor living spaces. And as fire pit popularity has grown, so have the number of different design directions available.

Fuel For The Fire

The first choice is whether to fuel with wood or some type of fossil fuel, typically natural gas. Wood-burning fire pits can be simple or surprisingly elaborate. As is the case with gas-fueled fire pits, those that burn wood fall into two basic categories: built on site or pre-manufactured.

Drop-in, pre-manufactured fire pits come in all shapes and sizes with some making elaborate artistic statements. The spectrum is almost infinite; there are hand-cut globes that depict scenes and complex patterns, there are skulls, Darth Vader heads, the sun and other celestial bodies, lotus flowers, all manner of contemporary sculpture and fire-breathing dragons. They are typically made of either ceramic material, such as the familiar chimenea, the popular pit variation shaped like a pear. Drop-in units can be made from any number of alloys, steel, copper/bronze or aluminum. On top of the creative possibilities, homeowners who opt for drop-in wood-burning pits value the convenience, affordability and portability of such products.

Built-in, permanent wood-burning pits can be as simple as a ring of dry-stacked rocks to extraordinarily elaborate designs features a wide range of materials such as CMUs, cast-in-place concrete or permanently installed metal containers. As is true of gas-fired fire pits, permanently installed wood-burning pits can be made to suit most any architectural style, from formal elegance to rustic naturalism.

Fire pits can be finished with the same set of options found in other hardscape structures, from plaster and stucco, stacked ledger stone, decorative colored and/or stamped concrete, brick, travertine or even marble. They can be virtually any shape, square and round, linear or crescent shaped.

Wood-burning fire rings are banned in many areas, particularly in municipalities where drought and wildfires are common, such as in much of Southern California where many neighborhoods are in close proximity to the highly flammable chaparral landscape. Sparks generated by wood fires can present a hazard, particularly when fires burn inappropriate materials such as cardboard, paper or refuse. Wood-burning fire rings also require a dry place to store firewood and require frequent cleaning.

Gas Convenience

Whether mandated by law or simply by choice, gas-fueled fire rings are extraordinarily popular for their convenience, safety and design variety. A great many homeowners do not want to deal with maintaining a wood supply, cleaning up ashes or smelling like smoke. Because they require a gas line and electrical connections for the ignition system, gas-fueled fire pits are always permanently installed and subject to local and national code requirements.

Like wood-burning fire pits, gas options are available either pre-manufactured and ready to install, or built on site and fitted with burner inserts. Again, those built on site can take the form of anything homeowners imagine and come in every conceivable style.

Gas fire pits often include a wide coping suitable as a footrest or bench. For this reason, builders recommend at least 12-inch wide coping. Burners should be at least four inches clear of the coping. Fire pits, gas or wood burning, should always be lined with firebrick and fire clay mortar. Likewise, the material used to fill gas fire pits, be it faux logs, boulders, rocks, cannonballs or glass, should always be manufactured to withstand high temperatures.

As is true of portable wood-burning pits, pre-manufactured gas fire pits offer an ever increasingly diverse set of aesthetic options. Fire bowls and trays are extremely popular, as are features that combine water features with fire. Some are designed for more rustic settings while others are decidedly architectural and geometric. They come in a many different types of materials, such as copper or oil-rubbed bronze.

In fact, the object containing fire has become as much a focal point as the fire itself; many fine artists today devote their time to devising new ways for flame and materials to interplay.

Fire In Place

Just as the fire pits cover vast creative bandwidth, so too do the areas surrounding them represent a canvas with limitless possibilities. Because fire pits are meant as places to gather, their surrounds have a huge impact on the overall utility, comfort, aesthetic and ambiance of any yard, large or small.

First, there's the issue of where in the landscape the fire pit is located. Some homeowners prefer close proximity to the house to facilitate traffic and serving food and drinks. Others opt for more removed locations where the fire pit becomes its own destination within the property. Some fire pits are integral to outbuildings, awnings and other shade structures. Some are close the pool, spa or outdoor kitchen for easy transitions between activities, and there are fire pits located smack in the middle of swimming pools on islands or in their own sunken seating areas.

Due to their popularity, experienced designers and builders almost always urge oversizing the space so that every one around the fire can maintain a comfortable distance and move in and out of the area with ease. The location should not run any risk of contact with surrounding foliage or other flammable materials. Almost any surface will work around a fire pit, especially famously non-flammable materials such as stone, tile, gravel, concrete, sand or decomposed granite. If possible, it's helpful to locate fire pits in areas sheltered from wind. Wood burning rings especially should sited with wind, smoke and sparks in mind.

Fire pits close to water arguably constitute their own category, with many elevated above pools so the flame reflects on the water's surface, adding another visual dimension to the setting. Others still are placed near the pool but at a lower grade, perhaps adjacent to the dry side of a swim-up bar. Many fire rings are close to small water features such as ponds, water walls or traditional fountains. Fire pit areas are often fitted with sound systems, outdoor lighting and smaller surrounding fire features such as torches or hanging lanterns.

Just as the fire pits themselves can either be portable or permanently installed, the same goes for seating.

For casual fire pit areas, simple lawn chairs and chaise lounges might suffice. In other more elaborate schemes, today's creative patio furnishings can be attractively placed around the pit, again, allowing for proper space. And,the range of permanently installed benches, seat walls or seating terraces is as limitless as the imagination itself.

The seating structures are often made to blend visually with other architectural elements, especially if the area is close to the home itself or hardscape areas. In other situations, the fire pit area is made to look separate from other elements on the property as sort of a romantic encampment nestled in the landscape. Simple half-log benches or cut stones might serve as seats while giving the space a rustic flavor.

Whichever type of fire pit, whatever the style, expensive or affordable, the toasty bottom line is that the experience enjoyed here in our modern day is as old and essential as humankind itself. 

AQUA acknowledges Neave Group Outdoor Solutions, Kevin Doud of Grand Effects and Scott Cohen's book "Outdoor Fireplaces and Fire Pits" for information and inspiration.


Eric Herman is Senior Editor of AQUA Magazine.