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Opening Up a Fireplace

Old houses are like onions – they are made up of layers.  When you start to strip back the current fittings, you never know what you will find…  Fireplaces are a good example.

In a recent top-to-bottom renovation of a large London townhouse, we noticed most rooms had bricked-up chimneybreasts.  We knew these would look fantastic if opened up and brought back into use – some fitted with working fires and some used as decorative spaces.

However, the process of opening up a fireplace is complex and potentially expensive, with safety a key consideration – here’s an overview.  If you are considering fitting a working fire, it’s essential you take detailed advice in advance from an expert.

Identifying a bricked up fireplace

Clues are:

  • An obvious chimneybreast (a protrusion in the centre area of a wall)
  • Air bricks/ ventilation covers.  (If you can feel a breeze through the vent, the chimney should be in a functional condition)
  • Chimneys on the roof
  • Fireplaces in similar neighbouring properties

The fireplace itself

Ideally, the fireplace opening has just been bricked up and the flue is intact, making the renovation process relatively easy.  However, in some cases, the flue may have been removed or deteriorated.

We always recommend a test hole in the chimneybreast to check apparent condition.  If this shows positive signs, you can proceed to opening up the fireplace area.

This is unsurprisingly an extremely dirty process and needs to be undertaken carefully – there is likely to have been a lintel holding up the bricks above the fireplace so you need to a) avoid removing the lintel if it still exists or b) immediately fit a new lintel if the original has been removed/ has deteriorated.

Top tips:

  • Open up fireplaces before redecorating
  • Cover/ remove all nearby furniture, flooring, etc.
  • Get professional help

Chimneys and flues

If you intend to use the fireplace, you must have a full integrity and smoke test carried out by a professional, to ensure the chimney is not leaking and is otherwise safe to use.

This will entail:

  • Sweeping the chimney – to ensure any loose rubble, as well as most soot, etc., is removed and will not fall down at a later time.
  • Lighting a smoke pellet in the fireplace, checking the smoke exits through the chimney and checking no smoke leaks through the building anywhere along the length of the flue.  You will need to have access to all rooms/flats/loft spaces the flue runs through.

Most chimneysweeps offer this service and will produce a report on the state of the flue:

  • If it is ready for use you will receive a certificate confirming its safety
  • If the report indicates leaks or holes this can impact on cost and process significantly

Repair work

If the smoke test shows the lining of your chimney is damaged, it must be repaired before use – the liner is where heat, flames and smoke are channelled out of the building.  If the lining is compromised, it could be catastrophic to use the fireplace because of the obvious risk of fire but also of smoke and gas inhalation.

Liners may be:

  • Clay tile liners – the original method for older houses but difficult to retrofit as access is needed to the flue itself (walls would need to be opened).
  • Cast in place liners – i.e. pouring cement down the flue from the top.  This method is much less invasive than clay and can add support to damaged or crumbling chimneys.  However, requires a safe platform around the chimney to work from, so often requires scaffolding.  Generally, not suitable for use with stoves.
  • Metal Flue liners – commonly used when fitting new burners or stoves, however relatively expensive compared to cast in place liners – scaffolding will also be needed.

Decision time/ other uses

When the fireplace and flue are safe to use, you can choose the style of fire you prefer.

Alternatively, and especially if expensive remedial work will be needed to make the fireplace functional, the fireplace opening can be used imaginatively as it is:

  • Keep the opening and fill with candles/ flowers/ other ‘objects’
  • Fit shelves – for books, or, as one client did, for his collection of trainers…
  • NB If you don’t use the fireplace for a fire/stove, it’s advisable to fit a cover to avoid draughts/ falling debris.

If you decide to go for it and make your fireplace useable, ensure you use a reputable and professional chimneysweep/ flue lining service.  It is difficult, dangerous and skilled work so be sure to question an extremely inexpensive quote as it may not include all the certifications and guarantees you will later need.

Choose the type of burner you want

Options include:

  • Open fire with logs or coals
  • Grates of many different styles with logs, coal or a gas supply with artificial logs or coals
  • Wood burning or multi-fuel stoves

Note, however if you are in a high density city such as London there are understandably restrictions on what you can burn – in London you are limited to gas or other ‘smokeless’ fuel unless you use a burner fitted with an approved filter.

Following the Great London Smog of 1952 which killed around 4,000 people the Government introduced the Clean Air Acts of 1956 and 1968, giving local authorities the power to control levels of smoke and ban burning fuel which produces smoke.

See here for the rules in your area-

You can have fun choosing the style of burner or grate – there are numerous different options, with various accessories such as andirons, available.  You can also choose whether or not to fit a mantelpiece – again numerous options abound – though we like to use reclaimed or reproduction mantelpieces, etc. appropriate to the period of the property.

Safe use

Finally, before you start using the fireplace ensure you have properly working fire alarms and carbon monoxide alarms.

Reputable fitters will supply you with these and indicate;

  • where they should be placed
  • how they operate
  • how often they need checking.

Always ensure your fire is switched off when not in use or being attended and you have appropriate guards for any children or pets in the house.

If you would like some help and advice on opening up fireplaces, please get in touch. Organising renovations from start to finish is what we do.

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