Sunbathing by the Fire

Fireplaces have a special place in our hearts. Rarely included in modern residential design, a hearth is still a natural magical beacon of warmth and welcome. And there’s more than simple relaxation to the fireplace, as we find out.

In August, Materia’s new theme, Leisure, kicks off. Materials for relaxation and recharging our minds and bodies are important here. To start with, we’re taking a closer look at some simple materials from a new angle, in this case bricks and tiles used in home heating.

Daniel Becker has re-interpreted the traditional stove tiles from rural Germany. He explores ideas of traditional craft, living and building technology combined with a modern twist. Becker’s re-invented ceramic tiles not only create three-dimensional optical illusions but also give off more heat than standard bricks or tiles.

A sunbather relaxes on a deck chair in the Caribbean while a skier relaxes in front of a chalet fireplace. Whether the heat comes from the sun or the fire, both the sunbather and skier are enjoying the particularly warm and pleasant feeling that comes from a radiant heat source. Until the 20th century, radiant heat sources were the dominant technology for heating homes. Stove ovens and fireplaces – the heating technology of the day – were built with a type of traditional brick characterised by its large size and mass as well as a rough, three-dimensional surface texture. The technology behind these bricks is relatively simple. The brick’s mass allows it to absorb and retain the radiant heat produced by fire. Meanwhile, its three-dimensional surface results in a large surface area from which the latent or absorbed radiant heat in the brick can be efficiently re-radiated into the cooler environment that surrounds it. The effect is similar to that of an urban city on a summer night. The sun’s radiant heat is absorbed by the built environment’s enormous mass throughout the day. After the sun sets, the latent heat is slowly released back into the surrounding environment by vast urban volume, made up of brick buildings and pavement.

Traditional stove tiles, often painted dark brown or green, were common throughout Europe in the past centuries, especially in the rural areas of Germany. Art pieces from as far back as 1300 CE depict these traditional materials in rural European settings. There was even a trend for European governments in the 18th century – in light of a perceived shortage of firewood – to fund research into refining the characteristics and underlying technology of traditional stove bricks. This government funded research, as well as development in the technology, came to an abrupt halt at the end of the 18th century when coal combustion appeared on the scene. Since then, the prevailing technology has changed and our homes are now heated primarily by radiators or sometimes metal stoves, both of which work by convection.

Convection differs from radiation in that it causes constant air movement in the house. Like the principle of a hot air balloon, hot air is pushed upwards and cold air is sucked in. Although efficient and convenient, it is not necessarily an ideal strategy for heating. For example, because warm air in a space rises, it quickly escapes those sitting on or near the floor in a room. Further, the movement of air means dust in the house starts to be circulated in the airflows, which irritates the respiratory system. Because of this, radiant heat strategies with modern materials may be worth a second look – at least in certain circumstances. Stoves and fireplaces in modern space can be accommodated under the stairs, disguised into a wall or standing alone as an architectural focal point in a space and offer while offering alternative materials and a means of heating spaces.

Becker’s stove tile designs are interesting because they take a traditional technology and twist it. The ceramic tiles are thick, with a face that is textured, therefore maximizing both the mass and surface area of the tiles so that they both retain and then radiate heat in way that efficiently warms their immediate surroundings. But rather than adopting the rough texture of traditional tile, the skin of Becker’s tiles have a smooth, sleek three-dimensional surface that maximizes its surface area with a complex, geometric surface topography – similar to the complicated meshes and surfaces that computer modelers dream up. The 3D surface texture also creates an optical illusion. Viewed from far away, the bricks make up a larger geometric pattern. As you move closer, the image changes to one of fine dots. In some of Becker’s stove and fireplace designs, he mixed the texture of his tiles with smooth materials to create interesting contrasts and patterns.

At Materia, we believe some of the most interesting and innovative materials result from a slight twist to materials that have evolved over centuries. Further to this, we are interested in how materials contribute to architecture and the experience of the built environment. An innovative twist in a material can also facilitate a change in the technology of the day!

Photo source for ‘Berlin’ stove tiles: Daniel Becker Design Studio. To find out more, please visit: