As we wave winter goodbye, now isn’t the time to worry about the heating difficulties we just endured, right? Wrong. Thanks to the element of planning involved, now is the time to start thinking about installing a working fireplace.
We have just started enjoying our first taste of spring, the nasty storms and low temperatures of the first weeks of March a distant memory. It is easy to forget that that only a short while ago we were all complaining about the cold in our bones.
Although we do not suffer from extreme temperatures, reality is that between November and March the weather in Malta can indeed get get cold. It is less easy to forget this when your extremities feel like they could be chopped off and sold in a dodgy supermarket’s frozen food section without any further chilling required, as mine felt only a few short weeks ago.
One of the main reasons everyone and his dog mentions is the air humidity in Malta. But the other reason why the Maltese winter feels much colder than winter does in other countries is simple – we’re not prepared for it. Whereas countries further north of us have central heating and well-insulated houses, many houses built in the previous century (and I suspect, this one too) have been designed with little to no regard to heating or insulation. The little insulation that exists is a happy accident of houses generally being enclosed spaces. As for heating, many houses rely on gas or electric heaters, or else turn their trusty air conditioner for summer heat.
It wasn’t always like this; some historians have mentioned Ġgantija temples as the longest-surviving example of what we know today as fireplaces, with an open central passage in the roof to let the light in, and the smoke out.
For some reason or other, fireplaces and stoves are hardly a staple of Maltese households; possibly because of the scarcity of trees – and therefore firewood – on the island, but also because the summer months obliterate the chill from our collective memory.
Although not as efficient in heating a whole house as central heating would be, fireplaces go beyond heating.
Tatyana Mangani (www.barthuly.com), a Russian interior designer based in Malta, believes fireplaces are much more than a heating appliance: “A fireplace doesn’t only work to heat the place, but it also functions as a main feature of the entire interior, the heart of the house.”
It is easy to forget that that only a short while ago we were all complaining about the cold in our bones
The fuel options available apart from wood for fuel – ethanol, gas, or hybrid systems – have meant that fireplaces are no longer restricted to residences where a chimney can be installed, and the wide range of designs – ranging from basic holes-in-the-wall to fireplaces which are design features in themselves – means there is a fireplace to fit virtually any environment.
“The market is full of different styles of fire places that will match the interior, and if for some reason I can’t find anything I’m looking for, there is always an option to create the kind of fireplace I need,” Mangani says.
“The traditional place for a fireplace is the living or dining room, but from my experience any room (apart from children’s rooms) can have one, be it a bedroom or a study. I had one client who wanted a fireplace in his bathroom … Nowadays there are no borders, it all depends on the client’s wishes and imagination.
“In most of my projects I have ended up designing fireplaces myself. In my opinion, having a house ‘Designed’, with a capital ‘D’, means that the place will have a unique atmosphere, its own soul and a feature like a fireplace which is ready-made doesn’t always fit in it,” Mangani says.
Apart from being wonders of warmth, fireplaces can help add a sense of cohesion to the room, giving the designer a focal point.
“When at a meeting my client tells me they want a fireplace, that is it. The interior is done,” Mangani says. “I don’t need to spend sleepless nights trying to find a main idea for the room, something that will hold all the area together. What needs to be worked on are style and colours, which are much easier to do when you have that ‘keystone’ in place.”
Even though nowadays ever-larger TV screens dominate the centre of attention, Mangani believes that fireplaces can coexist with TV displays, particularly in contemporary interiors.
“Usually I join them in one composition as part of a feature wall. It is much easier to do in a contemporary interior, but there are solutions for classical interiors. It will all depend on the type of fireplace we’re going to have there.”
One such example of this approach is a living room Mangani designed for a client in Malta: the fireplace takes up the whole wall, but it also doubles as a projector screen.
The main function of a fireplace can also be its drawback – the heat generated can damage things which are close to it, so it is vital that both the choice and the placement of the fireplace or stove are thought out well in advance, and this includes checking the specifications of the fireplace you’re installing, as well as the operating requirements of any devices or materials you’ll be placing close to the fire.
“You have to be careful with open fires. Make sure that it is not close to flammable items; for example I wouldn’t place a wood fire place next to parquet floor,” the designer says.
Another element to consider is maintenance: chimneys have to be cleaned and maintained, and the hearth has to be cleaned too. You will also need to find a source of firewood.
With electricity and gas prices being what they are, wood fires might sound like a more affordable option in terms of running costs, with various suppliers providing imported logs.
Some households might have their own supplies of firewood from trees they might own; others yet may have access to a supply of used container pallets. As long as they’re dry and seasoned properly, they will all burn, but they will not do so equally well, and some woods, like oak and ash, are better suited for burning.
It is advisable to check with your fireplace supplier to see whether the wood you intend to use will work well in the fireplace or stove you’re planning to purchase.
Using reclaimed wood, like used pallets or scraps from joiners, is a cheap way of getting your fire started. The drawback here is that it is not always easy to tell what kind of wood it is and whether it has been treated or painted, in which case it should not be used as fuel.
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