Wintry Buffalo, New York is about the last place you might expect to find a building with no mechanical HVAC system. Yet that’s where a pair of architects fired up their custom-designed masonry heater, also called a kachelofen, which warms a contemporary cafe space by burning just six logs per day—even through a record-breaking winter where the average temperature was just 22.8 degrees.
Where possible, architects are increasingly ditching mechanical heating and cooling systems to cut carbon footprints and sometimes budgets. But frigid western New York is a tough climate to tackle without the benefits of modern mechanical heating.
University at Buffalo architects Stephanie Davidson and Georg Rafailidis, who run their own practice, pulled it off using a specially engineered masonry heater. Their kachelofen (pronounced KA-hell-oh-fen) is a wood stove that on a typical day slowly radiates the heat from a single, hour-long burn over the following 24 hours. A long, rectangular flue pipes smoke from the burn around a doubled-over, 30-foot loop, warming up as exhaust from the fire flows through.
“Very long horizontal flues are unusual because smoke wants to go up, so it’s very challenging to keep it from stagnating,” says Davidson, a UB clinical assistant professor of architecture. “Many of the masons we talked to said they couldn’t do a horizontal flue longer than 8 feet.”
Rochester, New York’s Empire Masonry Heaters could, however. They helped the architects enliven the flue chamber, covering the refractory cement with patterned tiles reminiscent of an intricate mosaic. Their ornamental chamber doubles as a café bench.
The kachelofen is known in North America simply as a masonry heater. While its winter-busting abilities are new to Buffalo, it is a centuries-old form of heating in Northern Europe. North America is “a fertile ground for new developments on masonry heater construction,” said the architects of the cheekily-dubbed Cafe Fargo.
“It seems also with a widening consciousness about ‘green’ forms of heating, and rising heating costs, the good old masonry heater is grabbing peoples’ interest,” they told AN.
At only 880 square feet, their cafe is well-suited to the system. But Davidson and Rafailidis said masonry heating could work in larger spaces, too, but it might require several heaters to evenly heat multiple rooms. Wood-fired systems also need to be constantly monitored.
Buffalo takes a degree of pride in its cold and snowy conditions, but if you’ve warmed up to the radiant heat of Cafe Fargo you may want to drop by—it’s still looking for a tenant.