Keep your home warm and cozy throughout the long winter, with a few simple updates to your favorite rooms. Our experts offer ideas for transforming your rooms into inviting winter spaces.
When it comes to simple pleasures, it’s hard to top the feeling of coming home to the faces and spaces we love after a long, hectic day. Especially as cold weather forces us indoors, we think about the things we love most about our rooms, and the things that could use a little tweaking. Do you like the first impression your surfaces make – flooring, counters, walls? Do you love settling into that favorite chair, or does it hurt your back? Do you wish flames were blazing in that old wood-burning fireplace you never use?
We asked some local fireplace, flooring and furnishing experts for ideas on upgrading your cozy rooms before you dig in for the long winter ahead.
Nothing says “cozy” like a fireplace, but only if it’s actually lit.
“I have people come into the store all the time and tell me they haven’t used their fireplace in years because burning wood is just too much trouble,” says Kevin Obee, of Benson Stone Co., 1100 11th St., Rockford. “You don’t want your fireplace to be a big, empty box. You want it to be a source of energy, light and good feelings.”
You also want it to help heat your house, or at least not cool it. A wood-burning fireplace sucks in air your furnace has already heated – as much as 300 cubic-feet per minute, says the U.S. Department of Energy – and sends it right out your chimney.
Because wood-burning fireplaces are inefficient, messy and labor-intensive, converting them to natural gas accounts for about 75 percent of the fireplace work done by Benson Stone Co., says owner Andy Benson. But if your home doesn’t have a chimney, don’t despair; you still have options. And if your fireplace works just fine, but looks out of date, giving it a fresh face may not be as difficult as you imagine.
First, the mechanics.
“A direct-vent gas fireplace unit can’t be beat for efficiency,” says Benson. “We see a lot of folks using them for zone heating – they can turn down the thermostat during the evening, when they’re gathered in the room with the fireplace, and stay nice and toasty. Then they turn it off and go to bed. There’s no safety issue about leaving hot coals unattended.”
Gas fires turn on and off with the flip of a switch or remote. Depending on the model, options like flame intensity, heat output and even electric ambiance lighting can be adjusted.
There are three main kinds of natural gas fireplaces: vented gas logs, vent-free gas logs and direct-vent fireplaces. Each has unique benefits. “It’s about finding the best fit with your particular space and circumstances,” says Obee.
Vented Gas Logs
These offer attractive flames and faux logs, are relatively inexpensive to buy, and can be added into an existing fireplace. A professional will need to run gas lines to the firebox before the logs can be hooked up.
“These give you a very pretty fire, with a nice, big ember bed, and they give off about the same amount of heat as they take in from the room,” explains Obee. “The disadvantage is that they draw warm air your furnace has already heated, from other parts of the house, and send it outside. Your furnace may just keep running nonstop and other rooms may become pretty chilly.”
Vent-Free Gas Logs/Stoves
“This is a good option for warming up spaces that are difficult to heat with the furnace, such as a chilly basement or large rooms with vaulted ceilings,” says Obee. Since there’s no chimney involved, you won’t lose air warmed by your furnace. Much like a gas range, this fireplace burns gas with near-100 percent efficiency. Newer models offer attractive yellow flames; older models tend to have blue flames.
The fire throws off a large amount of moist heat, quickly warming up chilly spaces. It’s important to understand that everything in the air that’s burned will return back into the room’s atmosphere and be breathed, since there’s no venting.
“This bothers only a few people who are extremely sensitive to chemical smells,” Obee says.
Ventless units are prohibited by law from being installed in bedrooms or bathrooms, because of potential air quality issues. And since they give off moist vapors, condensation can be a problem in very airtight homes.
“On the flip side, it can be very nice to have more moisture in the air, especially during the winter,” says Obee. He doesn’t recommend these for smaller rooms, which are too easily overwhelmed by the intense heat this fireplace generates.
Gas Direct-Vent Fireplaces
With the flip of a switch, direct-vent fireplaces give you a beautiful fire with the efficiency of a furnace.
“The chimney has two chambers – one for drawing combustion air into the fireplace and one for exhausting the flue gas to the outside,” explains Benson. “This sealed system prevents the whole problem of a fireplace drawing heated air from your house and sending it outside.” Because the fire is separated from your room by glass, there’s no chance of unwanted vapors seeping into the air you breathe. These fireplaces are available in freestanding or built-in versions, and can be installed nearly anywhere, because the small flue pipe runs through the roof or directly out a wall.
While gas fireplaces have many advantages, they’re not for everyone. “We still see people who love wood fires best,” says Obee. “They love the beauty of the flames and the scent of burning wood. There’s nothing wrong with that, as long as they use seasoned wood and have their chimneys cleaned regularly to prevent creosote build-up, which can cause chimney fires.”
When it comes to updating the look of a fireplace, Kim Benson is full of ideas. “We’ve seen a lot of people with newer homes replace the inexpensive ceramic tile surround that their homebuilder installed, with ThinStone or brick. Sometimes they take it all the way up the wall, maybe adding in a mantel made of wood or stone slab,” she says. “Or sometimes they might cover that whole wall in stone.”
ThinStone is made from real stone or brick, but is only a fraction as thick, making it easier to install and lighter in weight.
“You still use real mortar with it. Absolutely no one can tell the difference between solid stone or ThinStone, when it’s installed correctly,” says Andy Benson.
Spark your ideas for fireplace updates by perusing the many full-size displays in the Benson Stone showroom. There are examples of designs that appeal to contemporary, traditional, rustic, vintage and sophisticated tastes, incorporating materials like sleek stacked stone (no mortar), small glass tiles, chunky Wisconsin limestone, granite, marble and much more.
“A lot of people are surprised at how much difference it makes just to replace a fireplace screen or glass door with a more decorative one,” says Obee. “Lately, people have been changing out their glass doors to attractive wrought iron or burnished copper ones. These items are like jewelry for the fireplace.”
When you visualize a cozy home, what do you see? Chances are the floors, walls and countertops set the tone.
“When you think about it, surfaces are what make a big impression in your home,” says Lonnie Presson, owner of Lonnie’s CarpetMax, 6551 E. Riverside Blvd., Rockford. “And while a nice, soft carpet comes to mind, it’s not the only surface that gives a home warmth.” Any high-quality material that comes from the earth, or mimics it well, tends to make a home cozier, says Presson. This includes natural stone countertops, wood floors and the new man-made materials that imitate nature almost perfectly.
Presson is especially impressed with new options in luxury vinyl tile (LVT), something he recently previewed at an invitation-only event in Denver hosted by Shaw Industries. He was one of 130 retailers nationwide asked to evaluate new flooring products for quality, including a new selection of LVT.
“I had a real ‘wow’ reaction to it, and so did my peers,” says Presson. “I would never have gotten excited about vinyl products in the past – not even five years ago – but with the new technology we have today, they’re engineered to the point of perfection. You would swear you were looking at real marble or wood. I can see why LVT is the hottest flooring category, and growing.”
A member of the “resilient flooring” category, LVT is softer and warmer underfoot than many hard surfaces, easy to clean, and a problem solver. While it isn’t inexpensive, it requires less structural underlayment work than many floors, which reduces installation costs. It doesn’t raise your floor’s height, which means fewer headaches related to cutting down doors or cabinets above the refrigerator. “So many homes have metal entry doors now, which can’t be cut down if your floor height increases,” says Presson.
Best of all, he says, it looks beautiful, wears well and can go into any room of the house, including basements, which can be too damp for hardwood floors.
Flooring manufacturers mostly laid low during the recession, releasing very few new products. “This is the first year new introductions have wowed us in several years,” he says. “At that preview event, I was actually over there with some other guys touching and feeling the new LVT, trying to figure out, ‘How did they make that?!’ And I’m not a touchy-feely kind of guy.”
Even guys who aren’t touchy-feely can appreciate the new super-soft carpets available today.
“We still sell a lot of carpet in the Midwest because it’s soft and warm and easy to care for,” says Presson. “The difference is that people now want hard-surface flooring in their hallways and high-traffic areas. This extends the life of your carpet in the living room and bedroom, because it doesn’t wear out. Back in the day, when the whole house was carpeted, you had to replace all of it more often just because the hallways had worn out.”
Carpet brings a sense of calm to a home. “There’s a softer, quieter sound that carpet adds,” says Presson. “Most people today want a mix of hard surfaces and carpet. Carpet will never go away in this part of the country.”
The newer super-soft carpets are just as durable as their predecessors because the same basic materials go into the fibers. “The research and development on carpet fiber is tenfold better than it used to be,” Presson explains. “There are new ways of twisting together very fine yarn strands made of the same dependable materials as before, and that’s what makes it feel so soft.”
While flooring remains a major expense in a home, consumers should feel good about the value they get, says Presson. “Flooring just keeps increasing in quality, while its pricing has remained relatively stable over the decades,” he says. But he urges homeowners to think beyond price when choosing the materials they’ll live with day after day.
“There are several grades of any material, but why would I choose the cheapest one?” he says. “If I’m going to tear apart my whole house to put in granite counters or new flooring, I want something I’ll be really happy with when the work is all done. I’m not going to choose the ugliest material I can find, just to save a few bucks. When you get done, you want it to look like something you’re proud of. You don’t want it to look like Motel 6, right?”
Cozy Furniture and Accessories
When it comes to choosing furniture, most Midwesterners expect their purchases to last awhile, unlike folks in some coastal enclaves, who take a more “disposable” view. But being practical doesn’t have to mean sacrificing style, or ignoring fun trends, as you “cozy up” your home.
“The tried and true general wisdom is to purchase a good sofa set or sectional with a neutral-toned body and then dress up the room with more trendy things that can be changed out in a few years – pillows, lamps, even a fun ottoman or accent chair,” says Sheila Anderson, designer at Gustafson’s Furniture & Mattress, 808 W. Riverside Blvd., Rockford.
Anderson points to a sumptuous Bassett sofa grouping in a warm shade of butter-soft cognac leather. “To me, it’s difficult to imagine anything much cozier than this,” she says. “And this set will endure the test of time without ever looking like it’s out of style. The leather just keeps getting softer.”
Even neutral tones come in fresh updates. “We’re seeing a lot of sofas made with leather in beautiful, warm shades of gray, or gray fabrics that resemble a man’s suit,” says Anderson. Some have tiny white pinstripes; others are trimmed in oversized brushed nickel nailheads.
“Gray is definitely the ‘new’ neutral, especially the warm grays, which are nearly taupe,” says Anderson. “It’s also a great backdrop for the ‘script handwriting’ motif seen in trendy pillow and lamp shade fabrics, or the muted botanical prints in tans, browns and grays.”
Geometric designs still have a place in modern fabrics, but you won’t find a lot of florals these days.
Hibernating at home during cold winter months requires a few excellent reading lamps, some ambiance lamps to add soft light and a truly comfortable recliner or sofa – perhaps even one with a built-in USB port for your laptop or iPad, or a motion-recline remote that allows you to smoothly stop at any point you choose, from sitting straight up to lying down flat, like the model by Southern Motion on display at Gustafson’s.
“Most models have a few pre-set increments you can recline to, but this one can be adjusted to any point you want,” says Anderson. “It also has a layer of memory foam for extra comfort, and it’s made in America.”
For those who prefer more streamlined comfort, Scandinavian-style adjustable leather chairs offer support without the bulk. Many have matching ottomans that stow laptops and cords.
Another cozy trend Anderson likes is the array of new upholstered headboards, many in a warm gray or taupe, with subtle textures but little pattern.
“I think these bring a lot of warmth to a bedroom and just make sense,” she says. “So many of us like to lean against the headboard to read, watch TV, work on our laptops, whatever. It’s much nicer to lean against upholstery than a hard surface, and they look great.”
In hard-surface furniture, medium-shade wood tones are prevailing over extremely light or dark tones, and variations on Mission and no-fuss traditional styles remain popular. In general, furniture designers seem to be taking themselves a bit less seriously, preferring a more relaxed look. Anderson points to dining sets as an example. “They’re often shown today with upholstered end chairs that don’t match the rest of the set,” she says. “In fact, some people are mixing up all the chairs in their set.”
For those who know exactly what they want in a dining set, but can’t seem to find it, the Bassett Custom Dining gallery is a good solution. “You can choose your own table top shape and color, choose pedestal or leg supports in any style, choose wood or paint, whatever,” says Anderson. “Customers don’t expect to replace these sets often, so they want exactly what they want, and there’s no reason they shouldn’t have it.”
The best cozy homes have minimal clutter and well-chosen accessories that please their owners and reflect something about them. Accessories are a safe way to update a room. For example, wood or metal lanterns in various sizes and styles, from rustic to sleek or nautical, are a fun and trendy accessory to play with this season. “You can dress them up for the holidays, burn real or faux candles in them, build a centerpiece around them, pair them with flowers next spring – there’s no right or wrong way to use them,” says Anderson.
When you think about it, lantern light has long led generations of hardworking people home to the comfort of familiar spaces and faces. And coming home remains one of life’s very best simple pleasures – especially when that home is a cozy one.