Home Saunas: A Finnish Tradition in America

Every night, Aimo Tervakoski spends time in the sauna in his Washington, D.C., home. “Even when it’s summer and the temperature is over 100, I go to the sauna and then take a cold bath or shower,” he says. “It’s my relaxing thing.”

Tervakoski is not alone in his ritual. Nearly the entire population of Finland, plus a growing number of enthusiasts in the United States and Canada, is seeking the benefits of the sauna. Timo Lahdekorpi, a Finnish-born Finnleo Sauna dealer based in Durango, Colorado, says his sales double every year as Americans discover the benefits of saunas: improved circulation, relaxed muscles, and a quieted mind. “It’s a great, invigorating experience to sit and sweat and then take a cold shower,” says Coloradoan Tina Lewis. “It’s fun and healthy. In the end, a sauna really relaxes you and makes you sleep well at night.”

The only problem: Sauna dealers find that many Americans don’t understand what a sauna is. Basically, it’s a small, wood-paneled room equipped with an electric heater or wood-burning stove that heats fist-sized black granite rocks. The hot rocks maintain the sauna’s temperature. “I always have to tell people that the sauna is not a steam bath,” Tervakoski says. “It’s dry heat, although you do pour water on the rocks to help you breathe and sweat, and I think that’s where people get confused.” A steam bath is a tiled room with 100 percent humidity and a maximum temperature of 130 degrees Fahrenheit. A sauna, on the other hand, is made of wood. Even right after water is thrown on the rocks, the maximum humidity is about 50 percent, and the heat quickly lowers the humidity to about 20 percent. The suggested sauna temperature ranges from 170 to 220 degrees Fahrenheit.

Bringing the Sauna Home

Until recently, there were other misconceptions about the traditional Finnish sauna. The first saunas in America were installed in hotels and private clubs, notes Erik Lindström, owner of Saunas by Erkki, a Maryland-based company that constructed the sauna for the Finnish Embassy in Washington, D.C. “People didn’t really understand how a sauna could fit into their lives,” he says. “The sauna is for relaxation and cleansing. In Finland, it’s so important culturally that people build a sauna before they build their home.” In a country with 5 only million people, there are more than 1.5 million saunas more saunas than cars.

Now, Lindstrom notes, Americans are catching on to the sauna culture and installing saunas in their homes. One reason is that saunas have become relatively inexpensive between $2,000 and $6,000 for a complete package. Another reason is that saunas are fairly easy to install, even after a house has been constructed.

To learn more about how to build a sauna in your home, check out the full article with extensive resources in the January/February ’01 issue of Natural Home.