Fireplaces Go Upscale
By Bill Sendelback
With the improvements in the economy, an increase in homebuilding, and consumers willing to spend, sales of upscale fireplaces are on the rise. While most fireplace manufacturers offer higher-end models, and some claim “custom” models by allowing customers to select log styles, colored glass embers, and refractory styling, some have taken it to the next level with very high-end, true custom fireplaces – and that is paying off for these innovators.
When talking about high-end custom fireplaces, Moberg Fireplaces (since 1979) has taken that growing category to a ridiculous level. Fireplaces designed and fabricated by Moberg start at $100,000 and run into the millions of dollars. Moberg’s worldwide clientele is so exclusive that names and locations cannot be divulged, but suffice it to say they include celebrities, billionaires, and world leaders.
“Over the years we’ve developed an underground reputation for high-end, custom fireplace products, and we’ve been privileged that this has evolved into the highest-end fireplace sales in the world,” says president and CEO Walter Moberg. “We’re seeing substantial sales growth, and having trouble keeping up with demand. Recently, I’ve had to hire additional staff.”
Working with interior designers and architects, the majority of Moberg’s business is in private museums developed by his clients to house private art collections and other valuables. The boom in very high-end homes also has added to Moberg’s business, along with the lobbies of commercial buildings. “Another opportunity for us is in the growth of very high-end rental towers in cities such as Seattle, New York, and Chicago,” he adds.
Most of Moberg’s creations are freestanding gas fireplaces with a steel armature covered with materials such as glass and bronze. Gas models are 60% of his sales, and wood-burning models account for 40%. Besides designing and fabricating these creations, Moberg’s staff also supervises the installations.
“Part of the price is the time, effort, and costs to get these models certified, either here in North America or in Europe or other parts of the world where they will be installed.” Moberg’s business also includes reconstruction of classic, historic fireplaces and surrounds.
Stellar Hearth’s Cradius GLR.
Stellar Hearth Products
Stellar Hearth Products, acquired in September by Hearth & Home Technologies as a separate stand-alone division, says its sales of high-end, custom gas fireplaces are “great, up quite a bit,” according to Ross Morrison, senior executive vice president of Marketing. “Our motto is ‘Never Say No,’ so we get quite a few complicated and funky designs.”
The biggest part of Stellar’s sales is its semi-customs, available in four-ft. increments. But Stellar’s true custom designs represent much larger individual sales, such as $250,000 at retail. These true custom fireplaces appear to have no design limits. Morrison points to a current job requiring gas flames to travel 23 ft. up a wall before turning to a horizontal level, and also a traditional-looking fireplace suspended from the ceiling.
“Sometimes we’re asked to defy the laws of gravity, but it’s all fun,” he says.
Stellar’s jobs come from designers and architects who find Stellar on the Web, and also from a small but growing number of hearth products dealers. “In the past, hearth product dealers were not looking at this segment of the market,” says Morrison, “but now we’re getting more and more dealers. These could be $100,000 sales, so you can sell one of ours or 25 others.”
Morrison points out that the majority of Stellar’s creations can be installed by a dealer, just like a regular fireplace; for more complicated installations, Stellar sends its engineers. “This is a growing category, and it will just keep growing,” he says.
Montigo is no stranger to high-end custom fireplaces, having introduced its C-View series of gas models in 1999. “We can make almost anything the customer can dream up, depending on what the customer is prepared to pay,” says Jonathan Burke, president and CEO. With this series capable of lengths to 60 ft., those costs can run as much as $200,000 retail and installed.
The company’s BF series can have customized venting for installation almost anywhere, and front-glass cooling with Montigo’s Power Cool Pack option allowing glass temperatures almost to ambient room temperature. New from Montigo is its Prodigy series, available in corner units and see-throughs in lengths from three to eight ft. and glass heights from 12 to 60 inches. Other features in Montigo units include remote-mounted control panels so dealers will not have to go into the fireplace to make adjustments. Montigo also offers custom, direct-vent wall terminations.
“This category of high-end, custom gas fireplaces is absolutely growing,” according to Burke. “It started off for us with hotels and soon included installations in coffee shops, sports centers, and retirement homes, especially since we can offer the very cool glass fronts. Now we’re seeing a big increase in custom installations in high-end homes.”
Montigo dealers now are soliciting this business; some are actively hosting local architects and designers. Sales leads going directly to Montigo are promptly forwarded to its dealers. The company’s staff does the engineering for custom models, based on submitted specifications, to determine if the company can do the job as specified.
All fireplaces are tested in-house before being shipped to the dealer or to the installation site. Montigo also offers annual dealer training on topics such as how to quote jobs, updates on code changes, and new products, to bring dealers “up to speed,” according to Burke.
Ortal’s Island 130.
Ortal is having a “very good” sales year with its high-end and custom, vented, gas fireplaces, says Spencer Lowe, general manager. “This is our fourth year with very large sales growth,” he says. That growth is coming from installations in homes of more than $1 million, and commercial and hospitality opportunities. In particular, Lowe sees a “lot of growth” in resort condominium properties. “We’re seeing architects, designers, and builders trying to again make the fireplace a focal point.”
Lowe attributes much of Ortal’s success, especially with commercial and hospitality installations, to its Cool Wall technology which keeps the glass cool while still allowing the fireplace to produce heat. He sees the market moving to larger models with larger glass viewing areas. Another growth area for Ortal is its indoor/outdoor models using its Cool Wall technology on both the inside and outside.
True customs account for only 5% of Ortal’s sales, but it has 90 high-end standard models going to eight feet long. Specifications of more than eight feet, and with glass of more than 24 inches, are considered customs. Ortal also uses its standard models as modular units, bolted together, to reach any length.
New from Ortal are its freestanding Island and Curve models featuring all glass with no metal showing; those models are becoming more popular for commercial installations. Ortal also has introduced granite firebox refractory that can be matched to other stones in the home.
Pacific Energy Fireplace Products
While Pacific Energy has long offered its Town & Country Luxury Fireplaces as high-end, vented, gas fireplaces, it’s now introducing its new Architectural Series of high-end, custom gas fireplaces as part of the Town & Country line. These new models can be made in custom burner lengths from three to eight ft. in one-ft. increments, and with glass 16 or 24 inches high. Available in peninsulas, see throughs, and islands, as well as single sided, Architectural Series models can be load-bearing and come only with power venting for venting in almost any configuration. Combustible material can be installed right up to the fireplace opening, which is covered with Cool Touch glass.
Featured in the current New American Home, Architectural Series models include a custom control board that can be tied into a home control system and includes a fireplace diagnostic system that even shows gas fuel pressures.
“We’re doing a very controlled launch of our T&C Architectural Series,” according to Cory Iversen, National Sales manager. “We’re slowly opening selected dealers. The feedback has been very good, and sales are as good as we let them be while we control distribution. This slow launch allows us to make product adjustments. There is more demand than we’re now willing to supply. These are big and expensive units, and we want to make sure they are ready to go to market.” Selected dealers must display an Architectural Series model, and Pacific Energy staff will install that dealer’s first sale.
Spartherm, a newcomer to the North American market from Germany and one of Europe’s largest hearth products producers, does not yet manufacture custom fireplaces, but it’s certainly making its mark in high-end, wood-burning models. “Sales have been steady, but since we just started in the North American market, it’s too early to really gauge our success,” says Markus Aumann, Export Sales manager. “We’ve had very good response in Canada and on the East Coast of the U.S.”
Stressing very high quality materials and innovations in design and functionality, Spartherm offers 14 wood-burning fireplace models with retail prices ranging from $6,000 to $11,000. Spartherm is working on a yet-to-be-introduced concept to make the flames more visible and more prominent.
Another European hearth product company making inroads into the North American market is Stûv America. Offering both wood and gas high-end production fireplaces but no custom models, Stûv emphasizes its clean, contemporary fireplaces with 35 models and retail prices ranging from $5,000 to $12,000 and sizes with openings to 50 inches wide.
“Architects and designers love these clean, uncluttered designs because it allows them so much flexibility with surrounds to make unique, custom installations,” says Nadia Gilbert, Marketing and Customer Service director.
Sales for Stûv are “very good,” according to Gilbert. “We’ve had great sales growth for the last four years. Sales of our gas models are growing, but sales of our wood models are still our best. Our larger models have become our most popular.
“With these high-end luxury fireplaces, consumers are taking their time and asking many questions before deciding. It’s now more about their lifestyle, and they want a fireplace that fits their home design and their lifestyle.”
Stûv’s design philosophy is to fill a need in the market with “beautiful and high-quality products,” Gilbert adds, “so we don’t develop products just to follow short-term trends.”
Wittus – Fire by Design
Wittus is an importer, distributor, and retailer of high-end European stoves and fireplaces. This includes wood stoves costing as much as $15,000, and wood and gas fireplaces topping $40,000. “Our customers today have no problem with higher prices,” says Niels Wittus, president. “They want a particular look. They come to us because they are looking first for unique designs. They are not buying a heater.”
Wittus points out that his architect and designer clients want clean, minimal, contemporary styling with no louvers or trim. For Wittus, sales of wood-burners are growing, and now account for 65% of his sales. “We’ll always have clients who want to burn wood,” he says.
Wittus’ high-end market is looking for bigger, wider, cleaner landscape, or linear, models. “If it is going into a high-end home, they want to put a TV above it. For our wood-burning clients, they don’t care that these models may be less efficient; they want an open fire, not an overnight burn.” That is one reason Wittus thinks the EPA’s efforts to regulate wood-burning fireplaces are “ridiculous. These fireplaces are for aesthetics, for occasional use – not for heat.
“Our clients don’t normally shop in stove stores,” Wittus advises. “Hearth dealers have to cultivate architects and designers to get a piece of this profitable, high-end fireplace business.”
Some hearth products dealers are doing just that, successfully. CAPO Fireside, with eight and soon to be 10 locations in Southern California, is not a typical hearth products dealer, but a growing group of design centers selling high-end fireplaces and other hearth products.
“Sales of high-end custom fireplaces for us are doing very well,” says Eric Peterson, owner. “They are bringing us very high margins. But the margins have to be good because these are very complex products and costly to install.” Peterson points to a recent $145,000 custom, 11-ft. long fireplace CAPO had to install on a client’s penthouse reception deck. “Imagine getting that up in the elevator!” he says.
Total dollar sales compared between fully custom fireplaces and high-end production models are about the same for CAPO, Peterson says. But the unit numbers by far favor production models. “We do two to five customs a month while we sell maybe a hundred high-end production fireplaces monthly.”
In addition to installations in very high-end homes, Peterson does “a lot” of commercial jobs. He now has 25 salespeople working with architects, designers, and builders to bring in the jobs. While many jobs are from repeat customers, Peterson’s fireplace manufacturer suppliers offer sales leads to CAPO. “We have the in-house capability to do some initial engineering from the provided specifications,” he says, “our true custom models are engineered by the manufacturer.”
Trinity Hearth & Home
High-end and true custom fireplaces are a “growing opportunity” for Trinity Hearth & Home, Grand Prairie, Texas, along with the many builder boxes it also sells and installs in the Dallas-Fort Worth area, says Sam Kidwell, Sales manager. Selling five to 10 custom fireplaces a week, Kidwell says architects, designers, and builders are looking for innovation.
“After we learn what the client wants, we send that info to the manufacturer who engineers the unit and the installation,” says Marcus Davidson, Custom Fireplace manager. “Then we present that to the builder. There are a lot of things you can run into in the plans, such as venting and framing and where the unit is planned to go. So we often have to adapt the manufacturer’s specs to what the builder wants, and what can be installed safely.”
“To make sure it’s a safe installation and that it performs properly, we have to take responsibility for the installation,” adds Kidwell, “so we handle the job from inception to finish.”
“Our customers for custom fireplaces want a fire feature for entertainment, not for heat,” says Davidson. “They want to use it year ’round, so besides cool-to-the-touch glass, many installations include heat management systems to re-route heat. That’s particularly important for commercial installations where the fireplace will be burned all day.”
Linear models were originally extra long with short glass, says Davidson, but he now sees demand for linear styling but with taller 24- to 30-inch glass. Trinity’s high-end fireplaces sell for $10,000 to $40,000 retail, but its customs may top $90,000 retail.
“Even before the economic downturn, we pioneered modern and linear fireplace styling in our area and aimed at the high end,” says David Waldman, president of Dreifuss Fireplaces, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. “Now our sales of high-end and custom fireplaces are extremely strong. As the economy came back, our commercial business for these fireplaces has gone crazy.”
High-end residential jobs top out at about $30,000 retail for Waldman, but he currently has one home with seven new fireplaces, a job totaling $110,000. “The sky is the limit for commercial jobs, but our peak is probably $80,000 retail,” he says. Margins for Waldman are very good; not as good on commercial jobs, “but the dollars are much greater,” he says.
Waldman does not “pound the pavement” for jobs since Dreifuss has been in this category for so long that Waldman works with the same designers, architects, and builders on a regular basis. “Although we service only our Philly area, we get calls from all over the country,” he says. Waldman points out that the jobs have become more complicated, “but builders don’t want to listen to things like clearances to combustibles, so it’s important that we stay involved.”
Waldman sees a trend toward more European styling and logs rather than glass ember beds. “Customers want a real clean look with no metal showing,” he says. “For the past couple of years, we’ve seen demand for even circular, orb-style fireplaces hanging from the ceiling!”
Colorado Comfort Products
Sales of high-end and custom fireplaces are doing “really well” at Colorado Comfort Products in Denver, Colorado, according to Matt Hall, manager. “More and more people want a fireplace with that ‘Wow’ factor,” he says. “Now they want bay models, peninsulas, corners in a wide variety of sizes. They are looking for something that’s not ordinary. Whether it’s a commercial installation or for a home, this gives the impression of a high-end place.”
Hall sells twice as many high-end production fireplaces as full custom models. Production fireplaces top out at about $35,000 retail for Hall, while customs can hit $250,000. “The margins are great, but since our suppliers don’t set retail prices, we can establish our own retails to cover costs and margins.”
The biggest challenge for Hall is getting builders to understand that custom fireplaces are a “different animal. Even though we do all the installations, builders need to know these are all power-vented units requiring different venting and often have external control panels.
“Six years ago, I didn’t think we would be doing nearly as many customs as we now are,” says Hall. “This is a revolutionary concept for our industry and shows architects and designers new, innovative ideas instead of fireplaces that all look the same.”