Hearths built in ancient dwellings were used as the primary location for cooking and heating of water for the home. These hearths sometimes consisted of not much more than a pit in the floor surrounded by stones or wood with a hole in the roof for ventilation of smoke. By the 17th century, hearths included more decorative and functional elements, and the firebox became more elaborate, using chimneys for ventilation.
Today's fireplace hearths serve two main functions--safety and decor. To keep nearby people and animals safe from embers and ash, hearths act as a physical barrier to the firebox. Hearths built to specification can also serve as a decorative element in the home, incorporating materials and colors that complement the home's style.
Hearths include prefabricated and custom designed styles. Prefabricated hearths are often part of an entire fireplace unit and are the most popular style. Custom-designed hearths often consist of stone or brick and can be built at the same time as a home or retrofitted into a home during a renovation.
Many communities require building permits for installation of a hearth or another portion of a fireplace. Building codes often determine which materials are acceptable for use in a hearth, as well as any size, ventilation and other safety requirements. People considering installation of a fireplace and hearth might want to first determine the energy efficiency because some have a negative efficiency, meaning more heat is lost when the unit operates than is gained.
Babies, children and pets require constant supervision when in the vicinity of a hearth and fireplace because of the risk of injury, including falls onto the hard surface of the hearth as well as embers that might escape from the firebox.
According to the Los Angeles Times, people with breathing disorders such as asthma should not spend time close to a hearth because they might experience a worsening of their respiratory problems because of breathing in particulate matter produced by the fire.
In addition, the United States Fire Administration recommends keeping the hearth clear of any wood or combustible materials to avoid accidental home fires.