Long before central heating came along, we relied on solid fuel fires, usually wood or coal, to heat our homes. Many rooms in the home would have their own fireplace and if you look at the history of Georgian, Victorian or Edwardian properties today, you’ll find many of them still have these original features intact. Of course, when it comes to open fireplaces in the home, their use today is incidental and mainly decorative and, in fact, many old fireplaces serve no purpose at all.
Should it stay or should it go?
Original open fireplaces with beautiful decorative surrounds make stunning focal points in any room, but an unused fireplace is not only a waste of space, it’s a wasted opportunity to do something else with it. If you have an empty fireplace and don’t quite know what to do with it, there are three key questions to consider first of all:
- Should you leave the fireplace in situ and simply use it for something else?
- Should you remove the fireplace and fill in the hole to give you more space in the room?
- Should you remove the entire chimney breast and increase the usable footprint in the room?
These are big decisions, however, of all the options, the third one is undeniably the most invasive and expensive one to undertake. Removing a chimney breast involves structural building work that affects the floor below and ceiling above, and you may even have to take down the external chimney stack.
The good news is that planning permission is generally not needed for the removal of a chimney breast, though there are exceptions. “Leasehold properties, such as flats and maisonettes, for instance, have no Permitted Development rights. Not only will you need the landlord’s written consent for any structural alterations you are contemplating, you will also need full planning permission” advises a leading building surveyor.
But even if you’ve decided, on reflection, to leave your original fireplace in situ, don’t worry, you haven’t conceded defeat. There are still plenty of options of what you can do with the space. Let’s take a look at some stylish and inventive ideas to reimagine and repurpose an old fireplace.
1. Put a heater inside
Your fireplace may no longer be functional as per its original brief but it could still act as a source of warmth in the room. Without too much upheaval, it might be possible to place an electric heater into the cavity. These days, there’s a wide range of attractive electric stoves available, both in modern and traditional designs, including designs that look like log burners.
Another green heating technology worth exploring is bioethanol fuel (the bioethanol fireplace), which is made by fermenting the sugar and starch components from sugar cane, maize or wheat. It burns with a real flame, is clean and safe to use indoors – no flue needed – and heaters come in a choice of styles ranging from traditional-looking wood burning stoves to contemporary wall-mounted fireplace inserts.
2. Fake your fireplace!
If you want the realistic appearance of a fireplace but without actually installing anything at all, here’s a simple solution. Invest in a decorative fire screen or fire guard and place it in front of the cavity. Not only will this give you a stunning statement feature in the room, but it’ll also create the impression that the fireplace does in fact get used.
Next, place some remote-controlled fairy lights behind the fire guard and into the cavity, or alternatively a collection of church candles, to add a warm and cosy glow to your room without any effort at all. You can also fill the fireplace opening by stacking logs inside and draping the fairy lights around.
We took this one step further and got a fake log burner, it’s an electric equivalent and it comes in handy when we are all in the living room. I think our unused fireplace has turned into a lovely used space now.
3. Decorative focal point
As an architectural feature in the room, your ex-fireplace still draws the eye. Make the most of its good looks and use it as a space to display your favourite objects, whether that’s watercolour paintings or photography, hand-thrown ceramics or vintage basket ware. How about using the hearth and mantelpiece as a plant stand and creating an indoor oasis with lush greenery, bringing fresh energy and vibrancy into the room? For year-round interest, choose evergreens in a variety of shapes, sizes and textures.
Decorating your fireplace to reflect the season is a particularly impactful way of bringing it to life. A fresh vase of flowers in spring and summer, a pumpkin display in the autumn, and candles in the wintertime, there are many ways that you can decorate your unused fireplace with a nod to the seasons.
4. Stylish storage
If the fireplace insert has gone, the large-ish cavity can be the ideal spot for storage. Obviously, we’re not advocating for unsightly boxes of clutter that would be better off hidden from view. No, it needs to be storage for items that you don’t mind being on show. Some people use the area for books or magazines, or even as a media centre.
If you’re not averse to a bit of building mess in the pursuit of more storage space for your home office, you could get a builder to open up the chimney breast and extend the fireplace upwards. Yes, you may need an RSJ to protect the floor above, but you’ll be able to use the freed-up space for full-height built-in shelving or a cupboard while still being in keeping with the property’s original style.
5. Celebrate the empty space
Even if you’re not using your fireplace, or pretending to use it, it will still be the focal point of the room. Rather than trying to hide the fact and repurpose the area, why not celebrate this architectural feature just the way it is?
Choose some decorative tiles and enhance the fireplace surround, the hearth or even the inset hearthstone to your heart’s content. If there is no surround, you could frame the empty fireplace with a rustic beam to add some character and a handy display shelf for clocks, candles or ornaments.
Why not make a feature of the entire chimney breast with statement wallpaper or accent paint, topped off with an overmantel mirror or large painting? It’s an easy way to add to the visual appeal of your unused fireplace even though it is no longer a working feature.