Chimney Fundamentals

Beautiful, complicated chimney work has always been a major architectural design feature of high-end residential homes – and it continues to be important here in New England. The shape and size of a chimney is part function and part aesthetic and a chimney can accomplish multiple purposes. While most serve to vent fireplaces, some still vent fuel burning heating systems, while others accomplish purely artistic purposes.

Chimneys were originally built along the exterior walls of a home until the late 1790s
Chimneys were originally built along the exterior walls of a home until the late 1790s

A relatively recent innovation here in the states, chimneys were originally built along the exterior walls of a home and in the late 1790s were incorporated into a home’s interior walls. In colonial New England, moving the chimney to the center of the house – and including multiple flues – meant that fires could be lit in two or more rooms. These central fires would effectively heat the home’s center mass of stone, thereby keeping the building warmer for longer periods of time.

While chimneys have evolved, their scale and symmetry remain impactful design elements. For instance, because of height restrictions, homes built on the water tend to be long and linear. Incorporating heightened chimneys can break up the linear line and introduce verticality to these homes. This effectively creates height in a graceful, attractive way. There are also several chimney design options that create and enhance a home’s symmetry, including a single chimney centered above a front door, two anchored at the end of the home or even four chimneys, handsomely (or gracefully) positioned.

At times, a “false” chimney (those without a venting purpose) can be utilized to create balance and symmetry, as shown in the photos below.

Chimneys can be designed with varying materials and one classic option is brick and mortar. Masons usually choose mortar slightly softer than the brick so if something gives, the mortar goes first. Mortar can be can be easily re-pointed without the expense of replacing the brick. Alongside traditional red brick, one also sees area chimneys painted white with a black painted cap, sometimes referred to as a “Tory chimney.” The story goes that during the war with Britain, some New Englanders painted their brick chimneys white as a way to show loyalty to the British.

Fieldstone (“from the field”) is another favorite chimney material. Stone adds a beautiful, rustic charm and is available in multiple textures and colors. Fieldstone can be used in its natural state or can be cut and shaped.

To further stylize the chimney line, many are adorned with pots, which are placed atop the chimney. Pots are made from several different materials including clay (terracotta), brick and copper. While pots may be seen as ornamental, they also serve the practical purpose of creating a taller smokestack, thus increasing the chimney’s draw. Fires need oxygen to burn well and maximize heat distribution – and a taller smokestack will increase and extend the chimney’s draft. As a final touch, some chimneys also have a cap, which protects the opening by crowning the top to prevent rain, snow or small animals from entering.

So cozy up to your fireplace this winter knowing your chimney is a wonderful combination of form, function and history!