The Hearth is Back

J Brothers Home Improvement re-imagines the fireplace.
Riley and Brooke Cassibo play mancala in their fireside game room.

Fireplaces were once the heart of a home, and Minnesota’s long winters invite people to gather around them again. Whether it’s warming up an unfinished basement, reimagining the family room or modernizing a dated interior, a fireplace creates a place to cozy up, warm your feet and take the edge off the heating bill, too. 

Double Sided Delight 

Chuck Johnson of J Brothers Home Improvement specializes in custom fireplace installation and has a wealth of design expertise to share. When Brenda Cassibo decided to finish her basement, she turned to Johnson for design ideas. She knew she wanted a welcoming place where friends and family could relax and hang out.

The wish-list included a bar, a fireplace, plenty of extra storage, a guest bedroom and bath for out-of-town visitors, and a pool table. That may sound like a lot of wishes for one basement, but he gave her all of that, plus room for an air hockey table. 

A large bearing wall divided the basement, but rather than designing around it, Johnson suggested a double-sided fireplace. The transparent glass panels lighten the wall and open the space, while creating a focal point for the room at both elevations. In the TV area, the fireplace warms your feet while you catch a football game. Go down the steps into the game area, and the fireplace is at waist height as you move around the pool table to find the perfect shot. Cassibo loves how the fireplace can be enjoyed from both rooms at once. “We’re down there all the time,” she says. “The kids use it and the grownups use it.”

Sharing the Focus

Televisions have been called the electronic hearth, but Johnson says many of his customers are looking to accommodate both the TV and the fireplace. Homeowner Jen Moncur prefers the fireplace to the television, but her family wanted a bigger TV for the occasional movie night. 

The pre-existing family room had an inset fireplace smack in the middle of the wall, with the TV at an awkward angle in a dated cabinet. Moncur hated the fireplace. “It was just white bathroom tile, stuck on the wall,” she recalls. She also felt like her home needed some architectural detail and personality. “My house was in dire need of texture,” she says. 

Johnson and his team added beautiful stone masonry details to either corner of the wall to create balance, but also added a unique corner fireplace to create a warming glow. Sconces bring light and contrast to the stone pillars, enhancing the texture of the columns and showing them off after dark. J Brothers mounted the flat screen just above where the fireplace had been previously, cleverly disguising all the components underneath in custom-made cabinetry. 

Moncur was hesitant about hanging the TV in the center of the wall, but grew to love it. “Now, the TV and fireplace share the wall, instead of one dominating,” she says, “and I feel like it’s a classic look that won’t go out of style.” Although it was hard to imagine using her fireplace when they installed it in the middle of summer, she says her family used it every day in the winter months, and even into May, thanks to last year’s interminable winter.

The Fuel 

When it comes to choosing between electric fireplaces and gas ones, Johnson has a strong preference. “For efficiency, cost and looks, gas is always more realistic and affordable,” he says. “Gas helps out on heating bills too. You can just flip it on to take the chill out of the air instead of kicking up the furnace.” No Minnesota homeowner can ignore that. 

While the Cassibo family chose to install a gas fireplace, there are many other options on the market today. Your choice depends upon the effect you want to create and the type of fuel you want to use. Wood burning fireplaces are traditional, but most new homes install factory-made units because installation and material costs are lower. If you are non-traditional, you might also consider fuels like wood pellets, gel (denatured ethanol) or corn. 

The Look

The fireplace surround also offers a great design element that provides texture and color to a room. The Cassibo fireplace takes advantage of a rugged stone look that anchors the room. The Moncurs went with a multi colored, sharp edged look that balances the two sides of the room. Still, a third J Brothers creation uses small tiles and the warmth of a cherry mantle surrounded by built-in wood shelving that lends an air of polish and cozy sophistication.

With the memory of this winter’s chill, now is the time to begin thinking of how a fireplace might fit into your home, drawing your family to a gathering place, creating beauty and lowering your heating bill next year.