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By Scott Cohen

11-7 Cohen art 2When I want to work real magic into my designs, I play with fire – and do my best to find extraordinary ways to combine fire with water to express the full, captivating power of both of these natural elements.

Picture flames dancing across the reflective stillness of a pool; or visualize them alongside an inviting walkway that leads you across water to a beckoning fireplace beyond; or think of them in the foreground of a wall of water that glistens as it descends and disappears into a fiery trough.

These are just a few of the possibilities that can result from combining these two most basic gifts of nature.

Evolutionary Trail

Water has, of course, been an indispensable component in landscapes for a number of years, but fire 11-7 Cohen art 3features have only recently become backyard must-haves – among the hottest trends we’re seeing in modern outdoor design. It’s so popular because fire takes you away from wherever you are: As you gaze at the flames, you simply cannot be in a hurry.

On a practical level, however, fire does much more. Because it provides warmth and light, the addition of fire in the landscape extends the use of the yard into the night and well into the cooler seasons of the year. In this way, fire features allow homeowners to get much more use out of the outdoor spaces they love.

At first, the usual way to meet homeowners’ inclination toward fire was to include a fire pit. In fact, for many years people who worked with fire at all mostly limited themselves to installing these simple features – but that’s no longer the case. Now the trend embraces larger and more elaborate fire pits, but it also includes formal outdoor fireplaces crafted from fine materials including stone, cast limestone and travertine.

As might be expected, custom, full-size fireplaces costs significantly more than typical fire pits, but homeowners who’ve made the investment are convinced that the extra expense is worth it: When it comes to creating an “outdoor living room,” there is simply no better way to cinch the impression than using a real fireplace to serve as an anchor that creates and defines the space.

Setting a Mood

11-7 cohen art 1The key to designing with fire in mind is being aware that it can be an utterly stunning decorative element all on its own. With early fire pits, it was simply something to gather around, but now it’s joined the list of distinctive, decorative elements that can make an ordinary setting into a showplace. We at Green Scene Landscaping (Northridge, Calif.), for instance, often use majestic bowls and troughs of fire to add striking highlights throughout the yard.

The effects are both elegant and primitive at the same time and have a real appeal to the romantics out there: They know that there’s nothing like a little fire to heat up a relationship: Whether it’s an intimate fireside conversation for two or a late night dip in the pool by firelight, that flickering, rosy glow makes everyone feel like getting closer.

Ironically, fire features often spark conflict between men and women during the planning stages: When women think about fire in the landscape, they often think “fireplace” and see themselves sitting in the cozy light with a nice glass of wine, holding hands with their beloved or reading a good book. By contrast, men think “fire pit” and see themselves gathering with their buddies to drink beer or scotch while the kids roast marshmallows.

We frequently get caught in the middle of these debates – so often, in fact, that we now know what it takes to develop fire features that satisfy both visions. With careful design, we know we can provide homeowners with fire features that will kindle romance one night and encourage spirited camaraderie the next.

Powerful Partners

This takes us back to the water and how fire and water work together.

11-7 Cohen art openerAs we see it, the magic that fire provides on its own is dramatically enhanced when it’s coupled with water. So whenever we can, we use them in tandem to create fascinating and sometimes even surreal effects.

In one landscape, for example, we placed huge bowls of fire on each side of the spa, making reflections dance across the surface. In another, we positioned an eight-foot-long fire trough behind a pool to provide a magnificent focal point that greets guests as they walk through the front door of the home. In yet another, we put fire at a strategic level relative to the rim of a spa that makes it seem as though flames are rising directly out of the water.

Many of these special effects are quite affordable, and it helps if the designer and/or builder (as well as the homeowner!) keep a few practicalities in mind:

Fire is a great way to enjoy the view. If the lot offers a view, locate fire features at the edge of the property in a place where people will have a chance to enjoy the fire while taking in the more-distant surroundings.

Consider the view from indoors. Place features where they can be easily seen from interior living and entertainment spaces so people can enjoy the show while inside or out in the yard.

If it’s fire you want, do it proud. Install a generous number of gas rings in creating the desired effect. That way, the homeowners will be able to adjust the flames from mild to wild to suit the mood of the evening.

Locate fire where its warmth will be most welcome. Placing fire near a spa, for example, provides a way for people to continue to enjoy the area in comfort both in and out of the water.

Plan for safety. Always locate fire features away from traffic areas and take prevailing winds into consideration. A bit of common sense here will keep evenings safe and beautiful.

Used alone, fire and water each have their own attractions, but bringing them together makes their appeal nearly irresistible. It’s a matter of yin and yang: They are opposing natural forces that complement each other beautifully, with the reflective qualities of water highlighting the flames’ mystical dance.

The effect can only be described as primal.


Scott Cohen is president and supervising designer of The Green Scene, an outdoor design and construction firm based in Northridge, Calif. For more information, go to

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