In this post, I want to talk about a challenge that I encounter frequently – how to design a living room fireplace with built-ins on each side, specifically the fireplace with TV above it or in cabinetry beside it.
The fireplace 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 (perpendicular) to an exterior 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, the layout for the fireplace, and the placement of the television.
You will also want to see an elevation of the fireplace wall that indicates the height of the television especially 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 33″-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.
Cool Vents for Fireplaces
All gas fireplaces have detailed installation instructions that outline how high the mantel can be installed above the fireplace box depending on how far the mantle protrudes. Some fireplaces also have guidelines for installing a TV above the fireplace box, and most manufacturers will advise against it.
There are many fireplace models now that have the option to install cool vents. The cool vents circulation the heat up and away from the mantle and television. Some cool vents can completely eliminate the need for a mantle between the firebox and the TV. The cool vents sound great but they have very specific installation criteria as well. My opinion is that the front facing cool vents are unsightly, even though they can be painted to match the fireplace surround. The side vents are better if they can be concealed in a built-in or aren’t noticeable from the main viewing areas of the room.
When selecting a fireplace, you definitely need to ask the salesperson about the limitations around installing a TV over the fireplace and if you will need cool vents to keep the television from getting too high for the depth of the room. For more information, check out this blog post from Heat ‘n Glo.
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.
This is another asymmetrical fireplace design I created for a long distance client in Indiana. They lived in an older home with 8′ ceilings and knew they didn’t want to put the TV over the fireplace. We also had to work with the existing clerestory windows along the fireplace wall. The taller built-ins on the right balance out the TV on the right.
So how should you proceed with designing the fireplace wall in your remodeled living room or new construction home great room?
Tip #1 Gather Inspiration before You Begin
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.
Tip #2 Symmetry vs. Asymmetry – Choose Which Type of Balance Suits You Best
Analyze your personal preferences to determine if you are a person who prefers (maybe even needs symmetry) to feel like a room is balanced. If you know an asymmetrical design will always feel off to you, then focus on achieving a layout for the fireplace wall that is symmetrically balanced.
In this photo above, my clients wanted a very light makeover of their fireplace wall. They did not want to move their television above the mantel or redo the built-ins. We painted the built-ins and replaced the fireplace surround with stacked stone. The mantle is non-combustible concrete finished to look like reclaimed wood, and the hearth is limestone.
Tip #3 Pick a TV Location First
Decide if you can live with or even prefer to mount your TV over the fireplace. In many new homes, the architecture dictates that the TV be located over the fireplace because often, there is nowhere else to put it. If you are in the early phases of designing a new custom home build, request that the architect layout the great room to avoid the TV over the fireplace.
Tip #4 Then Decide on Hearth or No Hearth
The hearth decision is a personal one but also a design feature that can be dictated by the size of the room and the amount of space available for circulation. Is a raised hearth critical to the aesthetic and style you crave for your fireplace wall design? Or would the fireplace design work just as well without a hearth?
If you do choose to add a hearth, the hearth does not have to be set at 18″. It can be set at whichever height makes sense for your space, even though 18″ is typical for sitting. A low hearth can be practical and visually pleasing as well as a taller hearth.
Tip #5 Choose Your Fireplace Box
The fireplace insert size and style is very important for the overall design of your fireplace wall. If your style leans modern, maybe you would prefer a linear fireplace style, which helps with the height of the mantel. If your style is more traditional, go for a square or almost square style box.
Remember to inquire about the requirements for the cool vent if you are mounting a TV above the fireplace. If you plan to mount the TV on the floor, make sure you make that known to the salesperson as well. Some gas boxes require a hearth, though many can be mounted right on the floor.
Tip #6 Get Your Ideas Down on Paper
Insist on interior elevation drawings and furniture floor plans before you break ground. Read more about why this important in this post. If your designer or architect offers interior renderings, those can be helpful for understanding the impact of the design on the volume of the room.
Tip #7 Understand Your Technology Needs
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.
Tip #8 Settle on an Aesthetic Vision for Your Fireplace Wall
There are many options for how to finish the fireplace “chimney” in your design and the surrounding built-ins or millwork. Popular options for fireplace surround materials include stone (natural or cultured), slab material, brick, steel, tile, and millwork. Remember, all gas fireplaces will have requirements for some amount of non-combustible material around the top and sides of the box.
Stone fireplace surrounds are very popular, and there are many different styles and colors of stone to choose from. I would caution you to avoid any trendy stacked stone in busy color combinations. Try to select a natural stone if your budget allows in a ledgestone or castle rock cut. The cut and color of the stone will dictate the overall style of your space and the color scheme. The wall paint will need to coordinate directly with the stone, so if you like colored walls, do not choose an earthy or taupe stone because it will be hard to put color next to it.
Remember, the style of your fireplace box also influences the overall style of the design. Linear style = more contemporary while a square style = more traditional. Rectangular boxes can go either way (transitional).
The material, size, and proportion of your mantle contributes to the fireplace aesthetic as well. The material may well be dictated by the manufacturer requirements and your desire for a lower TV. A combustible mantel like wood must be mounted higher than a non-combustible mantel like limestone.
Do you have one of these fireplace feature walls in your home? Do you struggle with any of these issues when designing your great room fireplace wall or do you have any regrets about your fireplace? Are there other tips I should incorporate into this article?
Let me know in the comments!