Fireplace or fire pit? Seven things to know before you choose

Fire pits and fireplaces both feature fire for people to gather around, yet they are COMPLETELY different. They are not interchangeable. You can’t just drag and drop them interchangeably in a patio layout. Surprisingly, many homeowners choose a firepit because they believe it to be the cheaper option of the two. In reality, it is not. To decide which fire feature is right for you, you must learn how the two features function completely differently. Then, determine which features are right for your dream backyard. The concepts are simple to understand, but probably not intuitive. So let’s dive in and evaluate your wants and expectations before you spend a dime on the wrong product.

When you look at the item price alone, it seems as if a fire pit (or firepit) is the easiest and cheapest way to add a fire feature to your outdoor living plan. Upon further analysis, you will find out that all is not as it appears. Many other factors will come into play that add time, consideration, and cost (of course). Many times the overall price of incorporating these features in your landscape design is negligible. Realize that special considerations are needed for both. Even though they are similar in function, their use cases and layouts differ.

1. Patio Traffic and Function

Fireplace = Anchor and Focal Point

When choosing a fireplace, you are selecting a large, stately focal point for your patio area. Fireplaces are a STATIC destination. Other than two-sided options, They have a predetermined position. Users face the fireplace and face away from the patio- usually toward a scenic point of interest. This makes their placement and traffic flow easier to plan for. Ironically, large fireplaces do better in smaller yards or backyard designs that are not made to meander. This is most cases where backyards are a patio, and then a lawn- with maybe an outbuilding.

Often times people use a fireplace as the centerpiece of their outdoor living space. It is used to complement features such as a lanai or a pergola. You can use a fireplace to counterbalance features such as a pool or small building. You will always be designing around a focal point or anchor. This is one thing that makes fireplaces easy to incorporate into existing designs. You can place them at the end of a highly-used or open area. They will sit there naturally in harmony with their surroundings. 

Fire Pit = Addition and Movement

Fire pits can be a major feature of a backyard. Still, they are usually designed as an addition to complement an existing patio. Fire pits are a DYNAMIC feature. Fire pits are more interactive, but people also move toward and away from them more. People can sit all-around a fire. In small backyard patios, the people will sit and face back toward the house- not out toward a yard or scenic area. This use is perfectly acceptable. Where fire pits shine are large meandering yards. Properties that have multiple lawns, lawns at different grades, or backyards with meandering gardens and multiple focal points.

Usually, fire pits are their own addition separate from the main patio- or at least a separate section of the main patio. This helps add movement through a backyard design. Moving from the main patio to a fire pit area puts the use of the yard or gardens into play. Think of a firepit area as an addition. You can start to direct traffic in your outdoor space to and from the fire pit area. This effectively adds another gathering spot to your outdoor space. Outdoor firepits are best used when you want to add an additional intimate space for your guests to enjoy. It’s the exact opposite of a fireplace’s anchoring strength.

Always consider your budget, but continually build what you want. You may not be able to afford your dream backyard all at once, but plan out the major strokes and layout. Stick to your plan and slowly chip away at it. You’ll be glad you started building what you want and planned. 

2. Access and Usability

Fireplace = Static and Frontal

Fireplaces have a definite front and back. Even two-sided fireplaces have two distinct sides. This makes placing a fireplace in a landscape design reasonably easy. You can determine the flow patterns to and around a fireplace due to the frontal nature. This makes it easy to orient the fireplace, furniture, and features around it. You can place the fireplace for privacy or to heighten a view. Their size is great for anchoring a space or other elements in your backyard. It is hard to go wrong when placing a fireplace in an outdoor space.

Fire Pit = Dynamic and All-Around

Firepits (both square and round) are used and accessed on all sides. This makes the traffic flow and access to and around a firepit more difficult. A square firepit can help suggest a more decisive layout, but the basic challenge remains. This is why you often see firepits surrounded by permanent or semi-permanent seating, sitting in their own “pad,” or both. Sometimes fire pits are completely separated from the main patio. The extra square footage and sitting structures that accompany the fire pits ban make them a nice addition to any property. It is the “addition” part that you need to prepare for when choosing which fire feature is right for you.

3. Integration Into Existing Patio Designs

Fireplace = Easy and Intuitive

The upfront cost is usually higher than a fire pit. Yet, these costs may be mitigated by its relative ease of placement. True, you must account for a proper footing for a fireplace. But, fireplaces are usually easier to incorporate into existing backyard designs. Due to the directional access to a fireplace, they can easily be installed along the edge of an existing patio or outdoor living area. Using or slightly modifying your existing patio could make the overall project cheaper, faster, or more seamless.

Fire Pit = Additional and Tricky

Unless you plan on placing a fire pit in the center of an existing patio, proper placement of a fire pit can be tricky. The arrangement is made more difficult by the 360° access a fire pit affords. You need to account for drainage under your pit when placing it in a large open area. Otherwise, you will have a leaky pool of ash water when it rains. You can solve these problems by placing a seat wall or stone couch around one or more sides of the firepit. Whatever you choose, the all-around access to a fire pit usually makes a separate small patio addition necessary. This additional space and seating wall usually negates any cost savings of a firepit over a fireplace.

4. Perceived Value

Fireplace = Upscale

Undoubtedly, people think of a fireplace as an upscale addition to an outdoor space. The prestige is undeniable. Fireplaces are a sizeable architectural element that will add function and visual appeal to any landscape. Many times, the sheer size and dominance of a fireplace installation is enough to anchor an entire outdoor living area around. This is one reason outdoor fireplaces are so desirable.

Fire Pit = Mid-Tier

Integrating a proper fire pit area can be expensive and time-consuming. Yet, many people do not perceive them as high-end or upscale. While this attitude can be overcome and is slowly changing, the stereotype is hard to overcome. Too many times people think of a small ring set out from the house in a campfire setting. While this may be your chosen aesthetic, it does reinforce fire pits as a low-value feature. You can choose this low-cost route, but after a small amount of use, you will be sitting around a fire in a dirt or mud pit if you don’t pave the area immediately surrounding it- adding more cost to a low-cost setting.

5. Return on Investment

Fireplace = High ROI

A stand-alone outdoor fireplace is usually stated in a home listing as a significant feature. It may bring more offers. It will also make excellent photos that will help your listing stand out. Due to the upscale nature and relative rarity of outdoor fireplaces, you will likely get a higher return on investment when you sell. 

Fire Pit = Difficult ROI

Outdoor living spaces indeed add value to a home. Undoubtedly, well-planned and constructed fire pit areas can and will add to the value of your home. Unfortunately, they may not carry as much wow factor as a fireplace in a home listing. This is primarily due to the perceived value discussed earlier. Moreover, people may not want to start open fires- or any fires for that matter. But even unused, I fireplace makes a great visual statement while a fire pit just doesn’t (usually).

6. Design Aesthetic

Fireplace = High Brow

Perhaps the high desirability of a backyard fireplace is the formality that it brings. People may think of fire pits as small rings of stone that sticks are burnt in at the corner of the property. This negative perception will not be present when discussing outdoor fireplaces. The more complicated architectural quality of a fireplace demands a particular type of sophistication and formality. Which sounds more impressive? Have a cookout around your neighbor’s firepit? Enjoy a dinner party at your neighbor’s fireplace? 

Fire Pit = Low Brow

By nature, fire pits are less formal than fireplaces. They are smaller and simpler in construction. Using a fire pit is more straightforward. The appeal of a fire pit is that it focuses on and pays homage to the fire itself. More emphasis is placed on viewing and interacting with the dancing flames (and smoke). This more “primitive” and minimal approach to containing a fire makes fire pits very attractive for many people.

7. Perceived Privacy

Fireplace =Middle Privacy

Fireplaces add a greater sense of privacy to a patio area. Even though the amount of true privacy is highest close to the firebox, the feeling of privacy is more significant. The large size and vertical height of a fireplace give patrons a greater psychological sense of privacy than that provided by a fire pit. In reality, privacy can be obtained by an intelligent selection and placement of bushes, trees, and shrubs.

Fire Pit = Low Privacy

Firepits offer little to no privacy on their own. Seat walls and stone couch additions can add some perceived privacy. Firepits are also best built away from structures and covered spaces due to their open flames and smoke.

Summary

Firepits and fireplaces seem interchangeable to many people. They both have their strengths and weaknesses. Mostly, they affect the function and flow of your landscape design. Many people believe that fire pits are cheaper. But as you have learned, the added seating and patio space required negates any cost-saving the small fire ring may initially have over the fireplace. Factor in desirability and ROI, and fireplaces are hard to beat.

Functionally, they create two separate but equal gathering spots that will change how you utilize and move within your backyard. There are options available for both in every budget. Ultimately you should choose the one that achieves your overall design goals. Always consider your budget, but continually build what you want. You may not be able to afford your dream backyard all at once, but plan out the major strokes and layout. Stick to your plan and slowly chip away at it. You’ll be glad you started building what you want and planned. 

A Third Option? Check out our Fire Spire

Perhaps you want something in between a fireplace and a fire pit. Be sure to check out our unique new product: The Fire Spire. It is a centerpiece fire pit that looks like a tower ruin and functions like a fireplace. This gives you the anchoring aspect of a fireplace with less formality, with the wider traffic pattern and separation ability of a fire pit. It’s cool, it’s new, and it’s definitely going to be a conversation-starting centerpiece of all your backyard gatherings.

The Fire Spire is not your typical fire feature. It is a unique combination of a fire pit and a fireplace. Yet it differs from both. Read below to find out what makes this build unique.

Fire Spire- Functionally a Fireplace

The Fire Spire is almost like a fireplace. It is only a few inches shorter than our Bremley fireplace. The width and depth is similar, too. Thus, plan its placement as you would a fireplace.


Though it is round, you do not sit around it as a fire pit. With a front-facing opening, the Fire Spire is directionally oriented like a fireplace. The opening and height are similar to a fireplace, and the tall form factor keeps smoke out of your eyes, unlike a fire pit.  The Fire Spire does not restrict a column of hot air, so it does not draft like a traditional fireplace.

Fire Spire- Operationally a Fire Pit

There is no firebrick-lined firebox, hearth, or mantel. You interact with the fire through the arched opening more like a fire pit. This simple design not only lowers cost, it makes the Fire Spire easier to maintain. With a floor the same as a fire pit, you can use the tower multiple times before needing to clean its “firebox.” 


The open-top design allows access to the top of the fire. The notches in ruin are designed to allow easy access to warm your hands, place grilling accessories, and access the fire from the top.

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