What's warm, contemporary, and red all over?
Modern fireplace designer and former builder Tom Healy chose propane to fuel his wooded home — and not just for the outdoor flame features.
By Jeffrey Lee
Even in the winter, there's a pop of color and warmth on Tom Healy's patio.
The co-founder of Spark Modern Fires lives in a distinctive, shingle-style home nestled into a pine forest in Reading, Conn. Alongside a screened-in porch, a large bluestone patio overlooks a beautiful pond with a waterfall. Spark's bright red Cube fire element serves as the patio's entertainment hub, offering a dynamic, contemporary, and vibrant centerpiece — even when it's surrounded by ice.
"We try to push the limits in terms of entertaining outside," Healy says. "I have three boys. Every year we set up an ice rink, and they are skating all the time. So while they're out there, we'll turn the Cube on, and as they're taking a break from hockey, they'll come warm up."
Tucked away in a rural area, the home has no access to natural gas. For the former custom home builder who is now in the gas fireplace business, building his home with propane was a no-brainer, and not just to fuel the fire features.
"My wife is a good cook, and she really likes cooking with gas," Healy says. "So that was part of it. I'm not a big fan of oil — the odors from it and the messiness of it. So I was halfway sold when I was building the new house to go with propane."
The efficiency of propane heating was the clincher. A 93 percent efficient Buderus boiler provides domestic water heating and supplies a hydronic heating system in one part of the house; a second HTP boiler provides radiant floor heating in the garage and hydronic heating in the rest of the house.
Healy's home is a prime example of the Propane Energy Pod model, meaning it uses propane to fuel the home's space heating, water heating, cooking (indoor and outdoor), fireplaces, and clothes drying. The Pod model makes the best use of a home's propane fuel source, maximizing performance, efficiency, comfort, and carbon emissions reductions. Healy also added a propane standby generator, an important feature in an area that has seen multiple weeklong power outages in recent years.
Traditional warmth, modern appeal
Being able to use Spark fireplaces wasn't the main reason Healy built his home with propane, but he considers it an important bonus. "We enjoy the features of it every day in the wintertime. Really, year-round, on any given day, we might have a fireplace on for a period of time."
"People are looking for fresh new ideas that really set projects apart and differentiate them, both from a features and benefits standpoint as well as pure aesthetics."
Healy founded Spark in 2006 after operating a custom and spec home building firm in Fairfield County, Conn. As a builder, he saw both a void in the market and an opportunity in his inability to find contemporary fireplaces that worked with his homes' designs. "It seemed that the industry was stuck in a look that had been around for 20 years," he says.
Since drawing acclaim for its first offering, the sleek Fire Ribbon line, Spark has continued to expand its offerings, eventually growing into the outdoor market with linear burners offered in a variety of lengths. Fire pits and fireplaces continue to be a popular landscape feature — in the 2014 Residential Landscape Architecture Trends Survey conducted by the American Society of Landscape Architects, 95.4 percent of architects said they were somewhat or very in-demand.
"We were seeing more and more people wanting to extend their outdoor entertaining season, but not necessarily burning wood, because of the challenges of stacking wood, keeping it dry, and the safety concerns of blowing embers and all those things," Healy says. More recently, Spark has built on that desire with the Cube, a geometric, sculptural object that serves as a focal point whether or not the flame is lit. A lid that completes the cube is removed to display the burner. "We created the Cube basically to offer the marketplace something that was going to live outside, would be designed to flourish outside, and would be a pop of color on the landscape," Healy explains.
Offering an innovative fire element can be a competitive advantage for builders and designers working to thrill clients in an increasingly visual culture, Healy says. "People are looking for fresh new ideas that really set projects apart and differentiate them, both from a features and benefits standpoint as well as pure aesthetics." An appealing, modern flame may be the distinctive feature that building pros need to push their projects to the next level.