Real wood burning fireplaces are nearly extinct as far as new construction is concerned. The main reason for this is the energy code which doesn’t see them as being very energy efficient. I think the other reason is the lack of consumer interest in doing the work required to burn wood because it’s much easier to press a button and start a gas fireplace.
To me there’s no comparison between these two choices so fortunately there are still many older homes that have these old inefficient appliances. What is unfortunate is that a more efficient fireplace was actually invented in the 1790’s by an Anglo-American physicist named Sir Benjamin Thompson or Count Rumford. He was well known and widely read such that his Rumford fireplace became state-of-the-art worldwide except here in America.
I was introduced to the Rumford fireplace several years ago by a customer who asked me to build one built into her 1880’s log cabin. My next Rumford fireplace was at an old log cabin in Wisconsin that had such a poorly built fireplace it was replaced with a woodstove. After researching the idea of “Rumfordizing” an existing fireplace by rebuilding the firebox I tackled the job with great results.
My most recent Rumford experience came to me as a project with the Iowa DNR restoring four fireplaces built in the 1930’s by the Civilian Conservation Corps. These fireplaces were all built incorrectly so they smoked since the first day they were used. The DNR architects solution was to rebuild the firebox and raise the floor of the hearth to reduce the opening by almost 50% because he didn’t realize that the main cause of the problem was due to the fact that all the dampers were installed too low and the firebox was too deep. So rather than tell him it looked like a pizza oven and I had a better idea I told him that Count Rumford had a better design and after doing some research he granted me a change order to go ahead with the 220 year old design. Needless to say the newly rebuilt fireplaces give off more heat and don’t smoke at all. So much for trying to improve on something so simple.