A fire crackles in a gray family room in a Kalorama townhouse designed by Mary Douglas Drysdale. (Ron Blunt)

Imagine the coziest spot to read a book or catch up on Instagram on a wintry afternoon: a cushy long sofa, a nice cup of tea and a crackling fireplace with real wood burning, providing a woodsy scent and a warm glow.

“When people imagine their dream family room, they think of a fireplace being a major part of it. It’s a gathering and centering visual element,” says Anthony “Ankie” Barnes, a partner in Barnes Vanze Architects in the District.


A Gothic-style fireplace was installed in a new Washington home designed by Barnes Vanze Architects. (Anice Hoachlander)

The rustic stone fireplace in this log-and-timber home in Emmitsburg, Md., designed by Rill Architects, creates a warm and cozy dining experience. (James Ray Spahn)

Fireplaces are an essential part of many American homes. They serve as a backdrop for family holiday photos; their mantels are an altar for treasured talismans. In new construction in 2014, 51 percent of new single-family houses had one or more fireplaces, according to the census.

Wood-burning or gas? That’s the hot question.

“Homeowners are divided into two camps. Those that like to make real fires and those who just like to turn on the gas,” Barnes says.

Although some consumers think making a real fire is too much work or too messy, I’m one of those people who thinks that if you’re lucky enough to have a real indoor fireplace, you should use it as it was intended.

Learning how to build a fire, stacking logs and foraging for kindling was part of my upbringing in New England. During the District’s recent Snowzilla, we had stockpiled enough wood to have fires every wintry day, which made our 1937 house seem cozy, safe and extra warm.

I’ve watched as a number of friends have lost interest in buying cords of wood and hauling them all in. Some have let their fireplace sit idle, filling it with candles (the dreaded “firelabra”), plants or a studied display of birch logs. Others have switched to gas, citing the ease factor and concerns about air pollutants or allergies.

For me, gas fires are like fake plants or fake fruit. They are fake.


Architect Christian Zapatka collaborated with Josepha Faley of Chatsworth Design to design this wood-burning fireplace in the Kalorama neighborhood of the District. (Gordon Beall)

A fireplace in a Kalorama room by Mary Douglas Drysdale that was paneled and then given a wood-grain finish. (John Cole)

Architects and designers say most clients are set on having a fireplace, but they aren’t always willing to put in the work, between cleaning out the ashes and having the chimney regularly inspected. “It seems that most people want to believe they want wood-burning fireplaces, but they invariably default to gas when they realize how little the wood-burning fireplace would be used and how much work it is to build a fire,” Washington architect Christian Zapatka wrote in an email. “A number of wood-burning fireplaces have gas igniters, which helps.”

Romance can be a factor. “A wood-burning fireplace can be looked at as a romantic novelty, right as it sucks the heat up the chimney,” says Jim Rill of Bethesda’s Rill Architects. “But a nice big warm fire has a good ambiance to it and is much more attractive than a gas fireplace.”

For Washington designer Mary Douglas Drysdale, fireplaces have a lot of style importance; seating is often built around them, and they become the focal point of a room, whether they are sleek and modern or traditional. But wood-burning fireplaces bring back warm memories of childhood. “There’s a lot of emotion around fireplaces,” Drysdale says. “I learned how to make a fire as a child, and we used to sit around it and drink hot cocoa and tell stories. Even today, I enjoy the ritual of making the fire; you don’t just flip on a switch like a TV. The art of building a fire is more like writing. It’s slower and more thoughtful.”

Erica Burns, a Bethesda designer, says that she has seen an increasing interest in old-fashioned, wood-burning fireplaces. “Gas fireplaces seemed to have been big over the last 10 or 20 years. But the crackle, the smell, of burning real wood reminds people of what they had growing up,” Burns says. “A fireplace from 100 years ago still looks great; it’s a classic. Yes, it’s more work. But it’s sort of like fresh flowers. The real thing is worth it. ”