Designing a Patio Around a Fire Pit
Create a comfortable patio space that helps you get the most enjoyment from your fire pit.
Fire is a natural invitation to a gathering, so when you incorporate a fire pit into your landscape, it's important to think about where you put it and what you'll surround it with.
"A fire pit is an element that stands on its own," says Los Angeles landscape designer Mitch Kalamian. "It's very functional and makes a great patio concept. But I always pay attention to where I place it in the landscape."
Whether you're choosing a sleek contemporary gas model or a portable wood-burning fire pit, siting and seating are critical to creating a space you'll enjoy year-round. Be sure to consult city codes to find out whether you need a permit and whether there are restrictions on where you can put your fire pit on your property.
"A fire pit needs to be part of a patio," Kalamian says, "but it tends to be something you sit around after dinner, so I don't like for it to be included in the main dining area. It's best to create its own separate space."
Ideally, this space should be easily accessible from the main area, but not too close to it, and the path between well-defined. Kalamian has seen his share of bad fire pit locations: "I saw one recently where the fire pit was at ground level directly adjacent to the dining area. It was basically a hole in the ground with chairs around it—it was a foot below the surface. Someone's drinking too much or the kids are out playing and suddenly you have a disaster on your hands."
Keep in mind that while a fire pit has a practical function, it also serves as a focal point, preferably from the interior of the house as well as the exterior. "If you can, locate it where you can see the fire from a distance—say, from your living room," Kalamian says. "That way you can enjoy it even in inclement weather."
You may also want to set up an opposing feature, such as a small water fountain, across the yard to complement your new fire pit patio. "Balance in the yard is huge," Kalamian says. "It's really important to your design. Don't put everything on one side of the yard or it will feel lopsided.”
Finally, consider the direction of the prevailing wind before you break ground. Even if you're using a gas-powered pit that doesn't emit smoke, a continual stiff breeze can direct the heat uncomfortably onto half your guests while the others can't get warm. If you have a strong crosswind, you may need to plant a windbreak or even put the fire pit on the side of the house rather than in the back yard.
Although the patio you build for your fire pit should be separate, it will look misplaced if you don't relate it to the house with the materials you choose. The tie-in can be direct, such as using the same brick as your house's foundation, or subtle—say, using stucco in a color that echoes your siding or trim.
If your fire pit will be built into the patio, you can use almost any building material for the decorative coping (the cap on top where people will either sit or prop their feet up). "Stucco, brick, poured concrete, and flagstone are all good options," Kalamian says.
For a rustic look, consider a ground-level fire pit surrounded by an irregular, free-form stone, such as flagstone; you don't have to mortar the stones, Kalamian says, but it does make a cleaner look and is more structurally sound. If you're going for a sleeker style, you're likely choosing a gas pit, which can be filled with different materials. "Sometimes we use glass rocks, which are contemporary and sophisticated," Kalamian says. "We've also used silica sand—it's really spectacular to see flames dancing in soft, fine white sand." To complement this kind of look, use a grid pattern for the patio in a more formal tile, such as porcelain, ceramic, or slate.
Although a fire pit invites a gathering, it's a loose gathering, and you should keep this in mind as you're planning dimensions for your patio. "People don't congregate all the way around a fire pit, so you don't typically need seating all the way around, especially if the pit is smaller," Kalamian says. "You're usually talking about a couple of people with a glass of wine, so it's more of an intimate setup."
Kalamian constructs many of his fire pit patios with a built-in bench halfway around the pit and chair seating available nearby. But it's not a requirement that the fire pit be in the center of the patio. Kalamian also likes the "half-pit" look: a semicircular or square pit with a wall or even a water fountain directly behind. "It's nice to add plant material as well to soften up one side and create a feeling of enclosure," he says.
A fire pit itself is rarely bigger than four or five feet across, and the patio space around it should be an additional six feet or so on all sides. Be sure that you leave room to move chairs around and walk behind them; if you're choosing low-slung seating such as Adirondack chairs, don't forget to account for the extra real estate they take up.
Fire pits that allow seating on the coping should be at least 18" high; those used as a footrest are built about 6" to 12" high. For real wood fire pits, Kalamian recommends allowing ample room: the pit itself should be broader and deeper than a gas fire pit because you need to create lots of embers and warmth, and the coping should be wider than the typical 9" to 12" because you generally don't want to sit as close to a real fire. The bigger the fire pit, the wider the patio itself should be to allow people freedom of movement.
"Always be conscious of traffic flow when you're designing," Kalamian says. "That's the key to getting a comfortable space you'll use over and over again."