Come winter, many might wonder how to build a sauna at home. Because who really wants to brave the cold to share a sauna with strangers at the gym when you could sweat it out within the comfort of your own home?
Research shows that sitting in steamy high temps of 158–212 degrees Fahrenheit can improve the health of your heart, open your pores, manage your asthma, and even possibly lower your risk of developing Alzheimer’s. Saunas are good for body and mind!
There’s also the obvious: Saunas “are fun and make you feel excellent afterward,” says Eero Kilpi, founder and president of the North American Sauna Society.
Warming to the idea of a sauna at home? Here’s what to know.
Where to put a sauna
According to Nils Shenholm, founder and principal of Solhem Sauna in Duxbury, VT, there are two types of saunas to choose from: traditional (a stand-alone structure outside your home) and modern (a sauna that’s situated inside your house).
Photo by Nordic Sauna
“Freestanding is common in Finland and other parts of the world where saunas have been around for 2,000 years,” Shenholm explains. “It’s more authentic, provides a closer link to nature, and is uncommon enough in the U.S. to make it really worthwhile.”
That said, “the indoor sauna is more convenient to use, and perhaps more family-friendly.”
How much space do you need for a sauna?
Ideally, “the size of the room should accommodate the most common pattern of use,” says Shenholm. For instance, have five people in your family who’ll chill in your sauna? The structure you build should accommodate them all.
Aim for a square room about 6-foot-6 on a side, with a ceiling height of 7 feet.
“A room with a higher ceiling will be more difficult to heat and less efficient,” Shenholm says.
And if you value authenticity, consider a window. “Having a connection to nature is important,” says Shenholm. “People are often concerned that a window will cause too much heat loss or fog up, but in Finland, they don’t build saunas without windows.”
Are steam saunas and infrared saunas the same?
While infrared saunas are a hot trend that comes Goop-approved, the answer is no.
An infrared sauna uses special lights, rather than steamy hot air, as heat. While both types of sauna will make you work up a sweat, infrared saunas’ claim to remove more “20 percent more toxins” through its dry heat is dubious at best.
Can you build your own sauna?
That depends. If you have the DIY gene, you could be the one to turn an existing outdoor shed or unused closet in your house into a sauna. Some companies, such as Finlandia Sauna, manufacture kits that can be customized for any size. Still sound intimidating? Then consider hiring a dedicated sauna builder to get it done (more on that next).
How much does a sauna cost?
The national average cost of hiring someone to build a sauna that seats four: $4,500. That may sound like a lot, but there’s a lot more involved in building a sauna than nailing up some cedar and installing a wood stove.
A sauna includes the following elements:
Flooring: “A wood floor isn’t sufficient because it will absorb moisture and odor,” Marilyn Tarkiainen, vice president of Finlandia Sauna, explains. Instead, you’ll need concrete, ceramic tile, or high-quality vinyl. (Don’t forget a drain, since you’ll likely use water in your sauna.)
Foil-vapor barrier: This heavy-duty material, which looks like hard-core aluminum foil, keeps moisture from seeping inside your walls.
Tongue-and-groove wooden panels: These get nailed over your walls and ceiling. Western red cedar’s a popular choice, Tarkiainen says. Alaskan yellow cedar and redwood are also current favorites, but any softwood that doesn’t bear a pitch—that is, have resin or sap—will work.
Heater: To create rich heat and humidity, a wood-burning heater’s the traditional option. But “they may not be allowed within some city limits,” says Tarkiainen. (Also, some people view them as a safety hazard.)
An electric heater’s all about convenience.
“You set the control for the desired time and temperature, and the heater does the rest,” Shenholm says.
Everything else: You’ll need a door, obviously. (And for safety, you may want one with a glass panel.) Don’t forget at least two levels of benches so you and another person can comfortably lay back and relax, plus lighting and ventilation, since the air inside your sauna will need to circulate out (just not so quickly that you lose all your heat).
And after your sauna’s built and you’re chilling in it, “if you don’t get the runner’s high and your skin doesn’t feel fantastic and you don’t sleep superwell, you must be doing something wrong,” says Kilpi.
As the Finnish proverb says, “If liquor, tar, and sauna don’t help … it’s fatal.”