Architecture and the Senses: Fire
"Thankfully, the burning of wood is carbon neutral. Trees grow, consume CO2, produce oxygen and are then harvested and burned, returning us back to zero."
By Anthony Pettorino
How is it, in this 21st century of smartphones and technology, that so many people aspire to wanting some form of fire in their lives? We embrace low energy technologies such as super insulation, amazing airtightness and heat recovery ventilation then throw it all against the wall and want a fire. Just because.
I am an uber-geek when it comes to fire. I can recite combustion temperatures of various types of wood, know how to cook different foods on different types of fires and even created a blog about fire and food under the name ‘Firefoodie’ as an outlet for my obsession.
Fires have been inside our homes since we lived in caves. Ancient huts had open fires in the centre of the floor and the smoke simply went out through a hole in the roof. Then this evolved to the large ‘inglenook’ fire place, literally meaning fire recess. In the winter months, inglenooks would burn continuously, and provide the only form of energy for cooking, heating and drying clothes.
Fire places and flues slowly became more sophisticated and included cast iron surrounds and ventilation controls, all aiming at improving efficiency and general domestic convenience.
Open fire places consume vast amounts of air which has to come from somewhere. So imagine a nicely warmed house with cold outside air trying to find its way in wherever possible. What are we thinking? But on the other hand, this low-tech technology has moved leaps and bounds to help overcome these traditional technological inefficiencies.
Then, what about saving the planet? Thankfully, the burning of wood is carbon neutral. Trees grow, consume CO2, produce oxygen and are then harvested and burned, returning us back to zero. Maybe not so pretty, but pragmatically it’s OK.
So whenever using fire inside a house, there are a few simple rules to follow.
The traditional open fire place
Just accept it for what it is, enjoy it and forget all of that warm air being sucked up the chimney. You can’t avoid it completely, but heat loss can be reduced by providing an air supply somewhere near the base of the fire.
Wood burning stoves – what to look for
Room sealed: Basic stoves simply suck the air out of the nice warm room which then has to be replaced. I’m not sure why it has taken so long, but it’s only relatively recently that wood burning stoves are now available that are ‘room sealed’. This means that the fresh air is ducted from outside, directly into the combustion chamber. This is perfect for airtight modern buildings.
Dual combustion: Simple wood burners take fresh air in at the base to supply the fire with oxygen. The combustion gases going up the flue, however, still have unburnt vapours which are not good for efficiency. Dual combustion wood burners have a further air supply at the top of the combustion chamber. This creates a second fire above the main fire, and makes the maximum amount of energy is extracted before the gases escape up the flue.
Domestic fires in old or new houses, either open or in wood burners, are just another thing that for some reason, primal or otherwise, increase our quality of life. For me personally, it’s not just the fire itself, it’s the whole process. Cutting, seasoning and chopping wood, and then simply enjoying the end result.