Fire pits add style and comfort as temps ease lower

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This outdoor fireplace in the city was inspired by those the homeowner had seen at local restaurants like La Taza and Fry's Spring Station. Photo: Matthew Cox This outdoor fireplace in the city was inspired by those the homeowner had seen at local restaurants like La Taza and Fry’s Spring Station. Photo: Matthew Cox

Average high temperatures in Charlottesville don’t dip below 50 until well into December. So what do you need to enjoy the outdoors right up to the holidays? Nothing more than a small, well-built fire pit.

“It’ll certainly keep you warm, especially if you’re standing around it,” says Matthew Cox, owner of Crozet’s Appalachian Landscapes, which is doing more and more outdoor fireplaces these days. “The heat depends on the size—some are more rustic and more like a boulder fire pit—and it could be bonfire size, so the sky’s the limit on how big you want to go with this.”

Installing a permanent fire pit (as opposed to a movable, standalone unit) shouldn’t take more than a few weeks, depending on the hardscaping you might be doing around it. So make four quick decisions about your pit and you’ll be warming up to fall air in no time.

Where should you put it?

Cox says you should first consider the safety of your pit location, then move to issues like whether it’s in a place you’ll likely use it, if you’ll ever want to cook on it and how much space you’ll need.

For Michael Rettig, who recently installed a wood-burning fireplace behind his country home, the most important issue was having it in an open area where winds wouldn’t blow sparks into flammable material. “It’s about 75, maybe 100 feet from our house,” he says. “And although we can put a pretty good size fire in there, I’ve had bonfires on my property that were a bit scary, and I don’t think this is scary at all.”

Gas or wood?

If you’ve ever purchased a grill, you know the dilemma. Is the convenience of gas worth the price? Cox says if you’re going to use the pit often and “don’t want to smell like smoke,” it’s probably worth the additional couple hundred dollars.

“You also have to consider how close is your gas hookup and all the permits involved with tapping into that,” he says. “Then there’s the maintenance—a cover to protect it from the elements, having a pilot light that is constantly lit.”

Rettig says a wood-burning fire pit made sense for his family because they already have a wood-burning stove. But for another of Cox’s clients, who lives off Locust Avenue in C’ville proper, the set-it-and-forget-it nature of gas won the day.

“We did consider wood but we just wanted the peace of mind knowing we could turn it off and it would be off instantly. There’d be no fire in the coals from wood overnight and so forth,” he says.

What’ll you put around it?

You can put a fire pit just about anywhere—even a wood deck—particularly if it’s of the non-permanent variety. “Wood…is not ideal but could be done, especially with chimeneas or little fire pits,” Cox says. “You just need to be careful and watch it.”

You’d be wiser to put your fire pit in a less flammable space, and if you have the dough, you’d be wisest to build a stone or concrete surround. “The area around it is almost as important as the fire pit,” Cox says. Homeowners can purchase preassembled fire pit kits and customize them with a stone backdrop—think concrete pavers, flagstone or gravel.

Rettig’s pit, which is about 6′ in diameter on the outer ring, was built alongside a series of retaining walls. Around the pit is a circular patio about 18′ from end to end.

How will you use it?

Now for the fun part. Your fire pit can either be just a warming and hangout space, or you can use it for cooking, from toasting marshmallows for s’mores to throwing a grill over top.

“We live out in the country and love being outdoors,” Rettig says. “It’s a family gathering place, for our grandkids, for family when they’re home or when we have guests over.”

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