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The Romance of Fire

A bottle of wine, soft music, a vase of red roses, chocolate truffles… the accoutrements of romance laid out on a soft white sheepskin in front of a hot air vent. What’s wrong with this picture? We wouldn’t want our love to be cold, but when it comes to creating atmosphere nothing beats the warms of a roaring fire. The deep penetrating heat, dancing flames and crackling roar delight our senses. Being in the presence of and in relationship to this powerful element evokes a deep sense of home. Here, in the land of enchantment, we like fire so much that we build fireplaces, as ornaments, all over our homes even though most of them create very little heat in the home and lots of smoke pollution in the neighborhood.

There is a way to have it all…romance, energy efficiency, and healthy heating, by following the example of Northern Europe.

Our European ancestors were no strangers to energy crisis. Their big ah-ha occurred in the 13th century when it dawned upon them that the wood supply was not endless and, in fact that they would soon be shivering in misery if they did not curb their rapid consumption of the forests. This is when the evolution of the masonry heater began. The German Kachelofen, Finnish Tulikivi, the Dutch oven, the Russian stove… each country invented a way to provide home heat efficiently with a sustainable use of the available wood fuel. Using the principles of contra-flow, mass, surface area and central placement, regional versions of the masonry heater have continued to serve Northern Europeans generation after generation…knowledge, passed down and perfected over a 700 year evolution. The masonry heater works by burning a small wood fire full bore for a short amount of time. A series of chambers built into the heater circulate the hot air, warming the masonry mass. The spent air finally exits through the chimney without the polluting combustion bi-products emitted by other wood burning appliances. The heated mass continues to radiategentle heat into the space for many hours after the fire is extinguished. With our relatively mild winters a home can remain warm and cozy with a single daily firing of less than two hours.

From the standpoint of Building Biology which studies the inter-relationship between human health and planetary ecology, the heat provided by a masonry heater is ideal while forced air or baseboard heaters, although the standard throughout most of the country, are in fact far from ideal.

What are the qualities of an ideal home heating system?

As environmental stewards we would desire high efficiency, clean combustion, low pollution and no use of electricity or fossil fuels.

From a health and well-being standpoint we would want a source that heats us with radiant heat and not via hot, dry uncomfortable air blowing around us. It should not fry or circulates dust or toxic combustion bi-products, alter the ion balance or cause temperature stratification between our head and foot level. Heating should be quiet with none of the noise pollution associated with mechanical equipment cycling off and on and blowing air. As a bonus it should create a cozy focal point.

A masonry heater combines all of these qualities providing function and beauty…a romantic addition to any home!

Resources for masonry heaters:

  • Canadian Kachelofen: ans ship masonry oven cores.
  • Masonry Heaters Association of  North America: website: A source for general information and list of person trained and certified in the specialized art and craft of masonry heater building.
  • Temp-Cast: modular wood-fired masonry heaters and heater core kits.
  •  Soapstone masonry heaters imported from Finland.

Paula Baker-Laporte, FAIA, is an architect and a certified building biology practitioner. She is the principle of Baker-Laporte and Associates and EcoNest Design. She is primary author of “Prescriptions for a Healthy House” and co-author with husband Robert Laporte of “Econest-Creating Sustainable Sanctuaries of Clay, Straw and Timber”. She can be reached through the website