As summer evenings turn cooler, many customers are looking forward to the time-honored tradition of sitting around a backyard fire. We know that because the latest American Society of Landscape Architects survey found that fire pits are the number one requested outdoor design element today. And with many states restricting emissions that degrade air quality, clean-burning propane fire pits are a smart solution. What’s more, they’re quick to light and don’t require constant refueling.
Propane or natural gas also adapts easily to today’s styling trends, such as linear pits in custom lengths. “We see that people really like the custom pits more than the manufactured fire pits and tables,” says Pam Denlinger, retail manager at Penn Stone in Lancaster, Pennsylvania. The trend is toward natural materials such as brick, flagstone, bluestone, and steel, she says.
When building to suit, choose a complementary material to ensure the fire pit belongs and will be cherished for the long term. “We’re always aware of excess in materiality and like to keep it subtle,” says landscape architect Alain Peauroi, principal at Terremoto in San Francisco. “The fire pit material is often decided by an accent material already being used on a project, whether stone, corten steel, or concrete.” The board-formed concrete fire pit in the firm’s Palermo project, for instance, evokes the lumber panels used elsewhere in the landscape.
Another key consideration is the burner assembly, which dictates how the gas is distributed. All burners are required to have a safety certification, and the choice depends on the format your customer wants. “A linear design uses a long, singular tube for a burner element, whereas an element that wants to imitate a campfire style will be circular or shaped like a star or cross,” says Khai Foo, director at Paloform, which designs and makes stock and custom fire pits.
Options for the fire bed — what Denlinger calls “fire media” or “fire jewelry” — say something about how far fire pits have come. At Penn Stone, popular choices include clear or colored glass, broken-crystal-like glass, and round pebbles in an array of colors. “Fire media can get expensive, and one way to economize is to put down lava rock first and get fire jewelry to cover it,” she says, adding that many people still prefer the natural look of lava rock or porcelain logs.
“Lava rock is the popular standard,” Foo agrees. Natural stone is also growing in popularity, he says, and his firm uses a lot of honed basalt. It’s a smooth volcanic rock that’s polished for a cleaner, more modern look than the craggy lava rock and looks more organized and natural than crushed glass. “Beyond that, people are also using large, boulder-type lava stones in the fire pit. They create a very different kind of flame aesthetic than a linear flame appearing out of crushed glass,” he says.
The latest fire pit technologies revolve around ignition — another benefit of using propane over chopped wood for fuel. The simplest type, requiring only a gas line and no electrical hookup, is manual ignition using a match, Foo says. Another option is to use a dedicated remote control device connected to the burner. The most sophisticated electronic ignition systems can now be integrated with a smart-home system. “Fire pits are low voltage, so they can run off low voltage [wiring], but most of the time, they’re running on standard 120 voltage,” he says.
Most of Paloform’s propane projects are installed in homes that run at least partly on propane. “Our designs tend to be low to the ground, so our preferred method is to pipe the propane in from another location, whether it’s from the main tank on the other side of the house or a smaller tank concealed 10 feet away,” Foo says.
As for the design of the fire pit surroundings, “the pit configuration is often determined by what the space dictates,” Peauroi says. “But generally, it’s either arranged to gather around the fire or sit in front of it. I think that’s the draw to fire elements in the garden. They encourage people to hang out and share stories.”