Today I want to talk about a challenge that I encounter frequently – designing a living room fireplace with built ins on each side, specifically the fireplace with TV above it on in cabinetry beside it.
This feature wall may seem like a straightforward solution to the issue of multiple focal points (TV vs. fireplace), but many times it isn’t. These walls can be super tricky! Often the fireplace wall is adjacent to a wall with large two-story windows, and that complicates the living room layout even further.
If you are building a new home and still in framing or hopefully haven’t broken ground yet, this article is for you. Stop what you are doing and insist that your builder, architect, or designer draws a floor plan with furniture of your living room that shows the depth of the fireplace wall.
You will also want to see an elevation of the fireplace wall that indicates the height of the television if you are planning to hang it above the fireplace. And, you will need an elevation of the window wall to understand how the fireplace and built-ins affect your perception of the windows and how they are balanced in the space.
ISSUE #1: SYMMETRY ON THE ADJACENT WINDOW WALL
In two new construction homes I’ve worked on recently, the person who created the house plans (not me!) designed the window wall to be symmetrical with equal amounts of drywall on either side. Great!
Actually, it’s not great. In the first house, the plans didn’t account for the depth of the fireplace or built-ins on the fireplace wall. So, once the fireplace was framed out and the built-in cabinetry installed, we had two feet of drywall on the left side of the windows and about 6″ visible on the right. If you are a highly symmetrical person like me, this will drive you crazy.
This house was more transitional, and the clients didn’t want a ton of built-ins or a completely built-in cabinetry look on their fireplace wall. They wanted something more simple and modern. I designed the wall with two smaller niches for some built-in storage and display, but we left the drywall exposed so the paint color continues back into the niche.
The second house didn’t account for the built-in cabinetry depth either. It was the same problem but much worse. There were only 20″ from the fireplace wall to the first window opening. When the trim was completed, there was no wall space between the built-in cabinetry and the window trim.
I bring this issue up because clients often have a vision of how a room will look based on the floor plans and the inspiration images they’ve gathered. If the floor plans aren’t fully developed with all of the elements before construction starts, they might be disappointed when it doesn’t look the way they pictured it in their head.
Issue #2: Television Height
I have been surprised at how passionate people are about incorporating a raised hearth into their fireplace design. I am not a huge fan because they jut out into the room and make furniture placement difficult. I’m also a clumsy person and often bang my shin on their sharp corners, so maybe I am just biased.
My lack of grace aside, a hearth creates a fresh set of problems for mounting the TV over the fireplace, as if there weren’t already enough (more on that another time).
A seat-height hearth, which seems to be what most clients are after for the “cozy” factor, is around 18″ high. Then the fireplace sits on top of the hearth. A large fireplace box is 42″ high. I like to have the same amount of stone (or other fire retardant material) around the top of the fireplace as the sides if possible, so that’s another 6″ at least. If you are keeping track, we are already at 66″ from the ground.
Once we add the mantel, which is probably another 6″ high, and some space from the mantel to the bottom of the TV, we’ve gained another foot. So, the bottom of our TV is now at 6’6″ from the ground, and the top is around 9’6″. That is pretty high considering the optimal TV viewing height is eye level when seated – around 30-36″.
If you are going to mount your TV above the fireplace, making it the focal point of the room, consider buying one that looks fabulous all the time, like the Samsung Frame.
Issue #3: The Two-Story Great room Ceiling
I am also not a huge fan of the two-story ceiling in the living room. I love tall ceilings, but 18′ is really high and can often feel cavernous depending on the room proportions. In the context of the fireplace wall, it creates another conundrum – what do I do with all that space above the fireplace?
Depending on the roof design and second-floor layout, you may need to run the fireplace framing to the ceiling so the fireplace can vent through the roof. So, do you run stone 18′ high? Do you combine stone and paneling? Paneling and drywall? There are several options but my main objective is always to keep the room feeling balanced and not top-heavy.
Then there are the built-ins. If you have a two-story room, how tall should the built-ins be? I personally dislike built-in cabinetry that results in a shelf for dust to collect especially if it can be viewed from the second floor. But, sometimes this is the best solution and can’t be avoided.
In the pair of images above, I’m showing two options that I created for a client’s living room fireplace wall. In the top version, we eliminated the shelf and styled the wall above the base cabinets with art. In the bottom version, the shelf remains and is visible from the second floor landing. Here’s another look…
In the living room below, you can also look down into the living room from the catwalk above. Luckily, this living room was designed properly by the architect. He or she incorporated space to recess the built-ins, avoiding the shelf issue, and maintaining symmetry on the window wall. Win-win.
We chose to extend the marble surround high enough to feel proportional in the space but not all the way to the 18′ ceiling.
Issue #4: Symmetry around the fireplace
Like I mentioned earlier, I love symmetry. I’m a huge fan. But, in the end, symmetry is not the only way to achieve balance. Asymmetrical balance is definitely an option, but it needs to be considerate of the room proportion to actually feel balanced. Asymmetrical balance is more challenging to create than symmetrical balance.
So, why is this an issue? If you don’t want your TV over the fireplace, then it will need to be off to the side, hanging on a wall or mounted inside a cabinet. Today’s televisions are fairly wide and require more horizontal hanging space. If your room isn’t very wide, then you will need to offset your fireplace to one side to provide the appropriate amount of space for the TV.
If you don’t think this through carefully before your foundation is poured, it might not even be possible to shift the fireplace left or right in the room. This is yet another reason why it is SO important to take your time when building a house and think through all the details.
I love this asymmetrical design by House of Jade Interiors, especially the bench seat detail. By using the same white on the entire wall, they created a strong sense of unity even with the varying materials.
This is another asymmetrical design by Studio McGee that solves the TV issue beautifully. The television is at the optimal viewing height, and the built-in cabinetry below has mesh fronts so that the remote can talk to the components. It’s functional and beautiful.
If you are a symmetrical person, you may HATE it if your fireplace isn’t centered in the room. In that case, you can buy a smaller TV or you can mount it over the fireplace.
I created this design concept for the house with only 20″ to the window opening on one side. The fireplace wall has symmetrical built ins on both sides which are wrapped with drywall, solving the dust-collecting shelf issue.
An asymmetrical option for the same room is shown above. If I were designing another iteration for this fireplace wall, I might bring the drywall down to the tops of the built-ins. In this version, the hearth is at seat height and the TV is at the optimal viewing height. For a strongly symmetrical person, this fireplace wall idea probably wouldn’t work. It didn’t for my clients.
So What Should You do?
Study lots of inspiration images of fireplace walls and identify what you like about them. It may turn out that you really love built-ins encased in drywall. You need to know this at the earliest stages of planning – it’s very difficult to add later on and sometimes impossible.
Analyze your personal preferences to determine if you are a person who prefers (maybe even needs symmetry) to feel like a room is balanced.
Decide if you can live with or even prefer to mount your TV over the fireplace.
Determine if you absolutely need that hearth.
Pick a fireplace box. If your style leans modern, maybe you would prefer a linear fireplace style, which helps with the height of the mantel.
Insist on interior elevation drawings and furniture floor plans before you break ground. Read more about why this important in this post.
Understand your technology needs. If your TV components have to live near the TV versus a remote location, the built-in cabinetry will need to accommodate them appropriately.
Settle on an aesthetic vision. Do you like some stone or all stone? Do you like the paneled look or shiplap? Is it a formal room or casual? Is it modern and spare or traditional and maximalist? Your designer can provide drawings to help you understand how material placement and color affect the balance and proportion of the wall.
Do you have one of these fireplace feature walls in your home? Do you struggle with any of these issues or have any regrets? Are there other tips I should incorporate into this article?
Let me know in the comments!