The Essence of Fire

Photo by ZDA, Inc.

In the stark winter landscape, our minds often turn to the warmth and energy of the summer sun. Capturing its essence and elongating our outdoor season can be done through fire features, a growing trend in residential landscapes. Fire pits are easily acquired at any home supply store, but fire can be encapsulated in the backyard in a number of ways, including gas-operated features, moveable fire pits, and the increasingly popular pizza oven.

Fire Pits, Pagodas, and Pots

Ideal for immediate use, moveable fire pits come in virtually any size, shape, and color—their form ranging from the Scandinavian Wittus to ceramic chimineas. Though a fire feature can be as elaborate or simple as one would like, the magic of a fire pit is often found in its placement and less in the structure itself. When landscape architect Steven G. Ziegler is tasked with designing a fire feature, he focuses on marrying the intended use and type of users with the vernacular of the landscape.

Photo provided by ZDA, Inc.

So often round fire pits are placed in the middle of a patio, but Steven “[prefers] fire features that are organic in nature, composed of natural stone incorporated into the edge of a patio.” Doing so preserves the multifunctionality of the space, yet the beauty of the fire pit can still be appreciated. In his years practicing landscape architecture, Steven explored the arrangement of stones, including the “chimney stone.” Similar to the necessity of a keystone in an arch, the chimney stone is a large upright rock used to direct the circulation of air upward, like a chimney.

For permanent structures, a decision must be made for a fire source: wood burning or gas? A wood-burning fire produces more heat such that it can be used as a grill. The natural kindling materials can be harvested on-site, but a drawback is that wood will produce smoke and require maintenance to clean out ashes. Although gas fires do not burn as hot, they require less maintenance and can instantly be ignited. Gas, however, would necessitate the pit be a permanent, nonmoveable structure. As with any fire feature, careful consideration must be given to placement and a watchful eye kept on activities.

Functional and Delicious: Outdoor Ovens

Outdoor ovens are an enlivening source of fire in the landscape. Typically used for pizzas, the wood-burning ovens can cook food at temperatures of up to 800 degrees Fahrenheit. In mere minutes, a pizza is cooked to perfection, and your backyard has become the neighborhood attraction.

Thea Alvin, renowned artist and stone mason, has built numerous pizza ovens and shed light on their functionality. The popular cob oven “[uses] the fire out method,” meaning that “a hot fire is built in the center of the oven” that, in turn, heats the radiant mass of insulating bricks and cob material. Once the structure is properly heated, the fire is removed, resulting in a “[slow] release of heat that will cook food.” The fire out oven loses heat as it continues to cook food until it “has given all its radiant heat to the process.”

Photo provided by ZDA, Inc.

Given the well-documented history of these ovens, Alvin stated they are somewhat easily replicated “over a few days, and with some guidance.” The basic structure of an oven is built from a brick dome encased in layers of insulating clay, cement, or cob. From this fundamental form, designs will often add storage areas for firewood, counter space, and various facades to conceal the inner structure. In any oven, waterproofing is essential and can be achieved by building a roof over the structure. Finally, in ovens using radiant heat, it is essential to have even distribution of mass above and below the oven. As Alvin says, “Nothing is worse than a burnt but gooey pizza.”

While we look toward the tidings of spring in our garden, it is an opportunity to plan for landscape changes. When designing or locating a fire feature, give proper thought to the three primary design considerations: use, users, and the environment. And be sure to site the fire properly away from brush and oncoming wind.

Gathering together around a fire is a tradition akin to gathering at the table. It is a space to both connect with one another and connect to nature. We participate in the ritual of kindling a fire, feeling the warmth as it grows, and experiencing a sense of calm as it is reduced to twinkling embers. Be it a traditional fire pit or pizza production operation, a fire feature can enhance outdoor living spaces and create lasting memories.

Lily Mank is a recent graduate of the University of Wisconsin–Madison and intern landscape architect at ZDA.