By Cheryl Weber. Not long ago, wood-burning fireplaces were the must-have home accessory. Buyers viewed them as the elemental heart of the home, their crackling warmth a focal point for entertaining and family gatherings. By contrast, their gas-fueled cousins ranked right up there with artificial floral arrangements, scorned for their bright orange flames and phony-looking logs.

That sentiment is steadily changing, though, thanks to high-tech enhancements such as six-level remote controls that adjust flame height and fan speed, logs with peeled bark and forked branches, and burners that color the fire a realistic yellow by mixing the gas with air.

Gas fireplaces have become a major player in the marketplace in a relatively short period of time. Between 1992 and 2001, sales of gas fireplace units increased 500 percent, from 150,000 to almost 900,000, according to the Hearth, Patio & Barbecue Association, based in Arlington, Va. Of the 1.6 million fireplaces sold in 2001, almost 60 percent were fueled by gas.

Cleaner, Easier

KB Home's sales figures have yet to match those statistics. Lisa Kalmbach, senior vice president of studio operations, says 54 percent of the fireplaces the company sold last year were wood-burning, compared to 36 percent gas. But she predicts those numbers will reverse themselves in 2003. "A year ago, we weren't offering that many gas fireplaces," she says. "But one thing driving buyers toward gas is concern for the environment, particularly in northern California. As more municipalities start adopting regulations to cut down on wood-burning pollutants, we want to be ahead of the curve."

Direct-vent gas fireplaces are easy to install and design around.
Heat-N-Glo Direct-vent gas fireplaces are easy to install and design around.

Not only are gas fireplaces cleaner-burning, they're tidier in terms of maintenance. Tired of hauling wood and sweeping up soot, home buyers -- many of them boomers with fragile backs -- opt for gas because it's easy to use. "A gas-burning fireplace is more of an appliance," says Antonio Fiorello, sales manager for the south coast division of John Laing Homes. "It adds warmth and ambience with the flick of a switch." But to appeal to traditionalists in the high-end market, for whom tidy means aesthetically sterile, the builder offers a choice of gas- and wood-burning hearths in homes priced at more than $400,000. Migratory Patterns

The design of gas fireplaces has come a long way, allowing builders to install them at lower cost and in rooms and configurations they couldn't before. Ninety-five percent of Heat-N-Glo's products are direct-vent, which do away with the expense of a traditional chimney. The Lakeville, Minn., company also sells a top-vent system that can go on an inside wall. Its Crescent model, a recent introduction, is designed for the kitchen and includes a bun-warmer. And the company's patented Firebrick material allows fireplaces to be molded into various shapes. "The different shapes open up opportunities for use in rooms other than the living room," says Heat-N-Glo's public relations specialist Susie Hughes.

John Laing Homes puts a standard gas fireplace in the family room of its homes that sell for $200,000 to $400,000 and offers add-on units in the master bedroom and living room. The master bedroom is the most popular secondary location, Fiorello says. In homes that cost more than $400,000, 75 percent of buyers choose them for the master suite.

High-tech advances, such as realistically colored flames, have helped reverse anti-gas sentiment in the demand for fireplaces.
Travis Industries High-tech advances, such as realistically colored flames, have helped reverse anti-gas sentiment in the demand for fireplaces.

Gas fireplaces in the master bedroom are "all the rage," agrees Linda Kelley, vice president of sales and marketing for Orleans Homebuilders, in Bensalem, Pa. The builder provides a standard direct-vent fireplace in 90 percent of its product -- all except entry-level condos. It works well in a townhouse, where the family room is small, Kelley says. Thirty-five percent of the company's single-family home buyers opt for a second fireplace in the living room. "Not many buyers are choosing fireplaces in the basement, and we've been surprised by that," Kelley says. Cool Accoutrements

Even buyers of entry-level homes have a gas hearth on their wish list. Last year, 73 percent of Colony Homes' first-time buyers in Atlanta and in Raleigh and Charlotte, N.C., selected a direct-vent gas fireplace for the family room. Colony's architectural services manager Alan Knuchel says they're a valuable option because they're easy to design for and install, while allowing the builder to profit from a variety of upgrades on features and finishes.

Orleans' Kelley agrees. "They're absolutely a profit center," she says. "A fireplace in the $3,500 range can go up to $6,000 with bells and whistles." Many of the company's buyers add heating elements, fancy logs, beveled-glass doors, built-in media niches, and marble, granite, and ceramic tile surrounds. Indeed, in pricier markets, the more upscale models are a status symbol for the owner who wants everything.

While Majestic's direct-vent builder series -- which includes 33- to 43-inch models -- continues to be the most popular with builders, Bob Hodan, vice president of sales and marketing, says the Ontario, Canada-based company's higher-end units are gaining ground. The DV 360 and 580 series, for example, feature a deeper firebox and a larger viewing area and come with a remotely controlled thermostat and a timer that turns off a master-bedroom fireplace after the owner is asleep.

"See-through units and peninsula units are also picking up in popularity, especially in mid- to higher-end homes," Hodan says. "They provide more interesting architectural opportunities for builders than the standard fireplace."

In Chicago, it's climate, not just consumerism, that affects sales. At Town and Country Homes, gas fireplaces and their accoutrements range from $6,000 to $15,000. "There are pretty good consumer costs associated with gas fireplaces," says Mark Loehner, vice president of purchasing. "But in this market, it's good for resale. People like to see a fireplace in a house."

Published in BIG BUILDER Magazine, February 2003