Annie V. Schemmer
Fireplaces can add beauty, dimension and a focal point to any room of your home.

There is nothing that makes a home feel cozier in the winter than a fireplace. All year round a fireplace adds beauty, dimension and a focal point to the room.

Most people, especially this time of year, understand the value of having a fireplace. However, many are not so lucky as to have one in their home. Nearly half of the 40 million homes constructed in the U.S. since 1973 were built without a fireplace.

With the variety of fireplace options available today, from traditional wood-burning masonry to wall-mounted ventless units, it would be difficult to imagine a situation in which it would be entirely impossible to add a fireplace of some sort.

That said, local interpretations and enforcement of building codes may dictate details such as the chimney height, the construction of the firebox and flue, minimum clearances around vent pipes, and limits on fireplace emissions — all of which narrows your choices. You'll need to check with your city or county building department.

There's also the question of fuel: If you've got the space to safely store stacks of wood (not against the house — a fire hazard — but within convenient proximity) or an existing source of natural gas or propane, then you'll increase your options.

Costs for materials and labor to add a new fireplace can run the gamut from several hundred dollars to $20,000 or more.

Among the most popular options, a factory-built gas/propane fireplace unit runs about $2,000 for a basic package; add to that at least another $5,000 for the cost to hire professional tradespeople to cut a hole in an exterior wall, frame and build a chimney, install the fireplace, and add a surround and mantle.

Figure on spending about half that or less for a fireplace that vents horizontally through the wall — called a direct-vent fireplace — which eliminates the costs of building a vertical flue and chimney extension, and for simpler finishes around the fireplace opening.

An EPA-qualified wood-burning fireplace, which features doors with air-sealing gaskets to regulate how much indoor air it uses for combustion (therefore saving energy and reducing emissions) may cost upward of $4,000 per unit. The installation and finishing costs of such units, however, is about the same as the natural gas fireplace.

A traditional, open-hearth, wood-burning fireplace — like the ones you see in mountain resort hotels — requires a skilled, professional mason and a budget approaching (and often exceeding) $20,000.

The lower end of the cost spectrum includes so-called "ventless" gas or gel fireplaces, and those powered by electricity. Expect to spend about $400, plus another $1,000 to have a professional install and finish.

When considering costs, also factor in on-going expenses, namely for fuel and maintenance.

According to the U.S. Department of Energy, natural gas is the least expensive utility-supplied heating fuel at a national average of $1.42 per therm, followed by heating oil and propane; electricity, meanwhile, is nearly twice the average cost per therm of natural gas.

Utility rates vary by geographic region, so check with your local suppliers to accurately gauge those costs; your use of the fireplace will impact ongoing fuel expenses as well.

If you have a readily available (and thus cheap) source of wood, it probably trumps the cost of any utility-supplied source. Wood and natural gas are by far the most popular fireplace fuels, combining for 83 percent of the market, according to the National Association of Homebuilders Research Center.

If you are thinking of resale value, the best place for the new fireplace is in the most-used room in the house. That is usually the family room or great room. If your goal is personal enjoyment or perhaps the more practical goal of space heating, the best place is where the unit best serves those purposes, installing a unit to enhance the sitting area of the master bedroom, to heat an office or guest room at the far end of the forced-air system's duct run, or to add holiday ambiance in the lesser-used living room.

Today, fireplaces are no longer just for the house. Think backyard: About 3 million outdoor fireplaces are installed every year, according to the Hearth Patio & Barbecue Association, as part of an overall trend toward more extensive outdoor living spaces. Expect to pay about the same for an outdoor unit, installed, as you would a comparable indoor fireplace.

However, don't expect the outside unit to be an efficient heating source; installing an outdoor fireplace is all about the ambiance.

We have helped many clients design rooms around existing fireplaces, move fireplaces, reface and refocus old fireplaces and add new fireplaces to enhance a home remodel. Next week we will showcase some of our favorite fireplaces.

Architects Ann Robinson and Annie V. Schwemmer are the founders of Renovation Design Group, www.renovationdesigngroup.com, a local design firm specializing in home remodels.