New building regulations introduced in 2014 have effectively banned the open fire from newly built homes in an attempt to comply with European Union energy performance and building directives, which aim to have zero-energy buildings by 2020.
While these efforts are for the purpose of climatic obligations, the open fire has a long history of taxes. A hearth tax can be traced all the way back to the Byzantine era. Smoke Money continued in Ireland until the early 19th century and was calculated on the number of fireplaces within a property.
Charles Darwin considered fire and language the two most significant achievements of humanity, as they were essential to survival, but today an open fire is a comfort rather than a necessity.
According to a study by anthropologist Christopher Lynn of The University of Alabama, published in the journal Evolutionary Psychology, the love of the hearth is deeply ingrained in the human psyche and born out of evolution. Lynn found there was a significant drop in blood pressure when vitals were taken from a large group of individuals observing a video of an open fire: "This confirms the hearth induces a relaxation as part of a multi-sensory absorptive and social experience."
A TV station in Norway broadcast a six-hour programme of wood burning, which attracted more than one million viewers. Netflix has three similar videos of wood burning in an open fire. Considering these are videos of open fires, one can conclude there is even greater calmness in front of a real open fire.
There is no doubt open fires are completely inefficient – up to 80 per cent of heat generated is lost up the chimney – to put this in perspective, for every four bales of briquettes burnt, three are wasted. In addition, the chimney aperture – when the fire is unlit – sucks the heat from a room.
William Fenton of Fenton Fires in Greystones says: "Only high-end homes under construction are installing open fires. A good compromise if one wants an open fire is to install a convector box, which still allows the look and feel of an open fire, but increases the efficiency to 50 per cent from 20 per cent; the next step in efficiency is under closed glass, which will bring it to nearer 80 per cent." These may be retrofitted in period homes.
He advises owners of period properties to install a chimney balloon in rooms that rarely use the fireplace – such as dining rooms – which prevent the loss of warm air up the chimney flue.
The 2014 building regulations, which were introduced to improve building standards, longevity and energy efficiency, specify that new developments have to reach a minimum Building Energy Rating (BER) of A3, which is calculated by examining a multitude of criteria including ventilation, the U value of windows and depths of insulation.
Hubert Fitzpatrick, director of the Construction Industry Federation, believes these regulations spell the end of the open fire in Ireland. "Every BER assessment is specific to the property on a case-by-case basis, and even with a closed convector box [where the front of the fire is set behind glass] it will not necessarily be energy efficient."
While an update to the regulations in 2015 allows one-off houses to be exempt from building control regulations, Fitzpatrick says “there is a lack of understanding of the opt-out clause for one-off houses; it does not excuse them from any obligations of the building regulations, and people will still have to undertake a BER assessment if they wish to sell their home.”
So how important are BER ratings to potential buyers? According to Rowena Quinn of Hunters Estate Agents, it is a matter of "horses for courses; you have one set of people who have grown up with an open fire and they would rather wear a jumper in winter months and have higher bills for the aesthetics of an open fire, on the other hand, there are people who are focused on lower bills, and see an open fire as a hassle needing to be cleaned". In addition she adds, "some older people who are downsizing are excited about lower bills, while others perceive A-rated houses as unbreathable".
Wood trumps coal when it comes to a sustainable fuel for the open fire, according to former award-winning journalist Leo Hickman of the Guardian newspaper, and now director of Carbon Brief, the UK website focused on climate science and policy: "Burning timber does not release any more carbon dioxide than if it were allowed to biodegrade on a forest floor, but it must be from a sustainable supply."
Keith Lowe of DNG estate agents admits that "while an A3 energy rating reduces heating bills and helps the planet, I am old fashioned and love an open fire, as do many of our customers".
It appears that by 2020, the only open fire in new homes in Ireland will be in televised format, so for those of us who are mesmerised by smouldering embers, the only option is to live in an old house.