Renovation & Design
Question: Hope you can offer a solution to this question. Last year we had a major renovation done, which included a new fireplace. The old brick one was removed and a gas insert and new surround were installed.
Our designer, who also functions as our contractor, came up with this design for the surround. The reno is quite contemporary, so in keeping with that, she found this design, which she wanted to duplicate for us. We have no mantel but above is a piece of walnut veneered wood, where the mantel would normally be. Below this is a one-piece quartz surround. Our designer was very particular about going with a single piece of quartz, rather than three pieces, which would require joints and "spoil the look". The installation was last April.
A couple of weeks ago we noticed a crack at the top right hand corner of the gas insert, which extends several inches above. When the fireplace is on the crack closes tight and opens when the flame is off.
Is this a design flaw, a fabrication flaw, or a defect in the quartz? My reading, so far, suggests a design flaw, where a one-piece surround will inevitably crack at the corners due to expansion of the top horizontal portion of the surround. This gets quite hot, expands and pushes against the vertical side pillars.
Who would be at fault here, the designer for the design flaw or the fabricator for supplying something they should know wouldn’t work? At least they should have known that there was a risk of cracking, which should have been explained to us. Our designer is currently in discussion with the quartz fabricator/installer. We are trying to anticipate their response. The initial thought from our designer is that the fabricator will offer to bond or fill the crack. Presumably that is the cheapest option.
My own thoughts currently are that it doesn’t make sense to do this, as the same stresses will continue to exert themselves and the quartz will crack again. To me the solution would seem to be replacement of the single piece with three pieces, to allow for expansion strips between the individual pieces.
Thanks, Peter Milner.
Answer: Incorporating a newer style surrounding an older fireplace may give it a much-desired facelift, but if the material is not suitable, serious problems can occur. Using a composite sheathing for the facade is asking for trouble and it should be replaced with heat resistant materials to prevent a reoccurrence, regardless of how it looks.
Too many times designers opt to try and use a building material in an unusual way to create a particular look, which may not be suitable for that use. Sometimes this may only cause a cosmetic defect like discolouration, lack of adherence, corrosion, or peeling, but in some cases, it can be more troublesome. In your situation, a product with poor heat resistance was used to replace one with excellent performance in this area.
Clay bricks have been used for centuries for fireplaces and hearths due to their excellent fire-resistance and other properties. This would have made them an outstanding choice for the original wood-burning hearth, but could also have been left in place for the newer gas-fired unit. Even though the new fireplace requires much less clearance to combustibles than the old wood burner, it still produces a significant amount of heat when operating. If the materials immediately below, in front, and surrounding the gas-fired appliance are not heat resistant, they may become damaged or a safety hazard.
Your efforts to modernize the look of your fireplace area may have been well-intentioned, but the desire for form over function has created a serious defect that will now have to be remediated. Modern sheathing material known as quartz, most frequently used in homes for countertops, is a bit of misnomer. True quartz is naturally occurring crystalline mineral made up of silicon and oxygen. It can occur in many different colours and is often used for precious or semi-precious stones in jewellery. Quartz sheathing is composed of ground up stone biproducts mixed with polymers and plastic resins. Most of the raw material would otherwise be waste, so quartz products are quite environmentally friendly. When this engineered product is complete it has the general appearance and hardness of natural stone, like granite. Unfortunately, it does not have the same heat resistant properties as granite, or other masonry products like brick, due to the plastic resin binders.
Because of the nature of the quartz sheathing used by your designer/contractor in the area immediately adjacent to the hot fireplace, it will be subject to damage. The crack you have observed is likely due to excessive expansion and contraction due to changes in temperature in that area. The fact that it closes up when the fireplace is lit is proof that the material is expanding in response to the heat produced. In my opinion, the defect in your renovation is use of an improper product, which may still have failed if installed in the alternative method you proposed. If this material was natural stone, or another ceramic or masonry product, it may have been fine, but would likely not have been available in the same dimensions.
Regardless of the exact details of the installation of the quartz sheathing around your fireplace, it was the wrong type of product for this application. Replacing it with a naturally heat-resistant material will be the only permanent solution, even if the desired look is not achieved.
Ari Marantz is the owner of Trained Eye Home Inspection Ltd. and the past president of the Canadian Association of Home & Property Inspectors — Manitoba (cahpi.mb.ca). Questions can be emailed to the address below. Ari can be reached at 204-291-5358 or check out his website at trainedeye.ca.
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Note: Every user assumes all risks of injury or damage resulting from the implementation of any suggestions in this column. Test all products on an inconspicuous area first.
Have a great suggestion or tip? Please send an email at: email@example.com. Reena Nerbas is a popular motivational presenter for large and small groups; check out her website: reena.ca.