A Warming Trend
Interest in saunas is on the rise as homeowners seek the relaxing benefits of heat in the privacy of their house
Imagine walking from your back door, stepping through a layer of fresh snow, opening a beautiful, rustic barrel sauna and feeling a rush of warmth hit your skin, work its way into sore muscles and relax a tired mind.
Or skip the outside and rustic parts completely and put the luxury of a modern sauna next to the shower in a master bedroom. Cue up something soothing on the integrated Bluetooth speaker, dim the amber LED lights and gaze out a perfectly situated window onto the never-gets-old Sierra Nevada landscape as the heat takes hold.
Interest in home saunas has come and gone over the years, and changing lifestyles brought on by COVID-19 have renewed interest in bringing amenities once relegated to private clubs or spas home.
Both existing homeowners and those building at Lake Tahoe and Truckee are increasingly adding saunas to their homes.
“In the last two years, saunas have come back as one of the most popular items,” says Mark Tanner, president of Mark Tanner Construction. He adds that a sauna takes up a fraction of the space and is more affordable than another popular addition as of late—golf simulators.
There are a seemingly limitless variety of options available, so it’s best to start planning a sauna by thinking about the desired experience. Solitary, communal or somewhere in between? Rest and relaxation only or a space for hot yoga? Do you want nothing but old-school mountain vibes or all the conveniences of the latest tech? What about adding an attached changing room or a nearby cold plunge to elevate the experience for you and your guests?
Sauna from Finland, an organization that promotes the sauna experience, encourages preparation, patience, relaxation, socialization and connecting to nature when partaking in the activity. While there is no one way to use a sauna, according to the group, there’s more to be had from the practice than just sitting in a hot room for a set length of time as part of an exercise regime.
“It’s all about experience, and that’s what our custom-home clients are looking for,” Tanner says. “Having it readily accessible at their home makes it easy.”
At its most basic, a sauna is a wood-clad room with a heat source, so installation can be quite easy, says Bryan Bertsch, project manager with Jim Morrison Construction. Finding what combination of amenities works best is key to getting the most pleasurable experience, as well as some of the health and wellness benefits associated with regularly using a sauna.
Traditional Finnish saunas use rocks heated by a wood fire. Water is then applied to the rocks to add humidity to the sauna.
Because of their convenience and efficiency, electric heaters often replace the wood fire in modern in-home saunas. Many electric sauna heaters require special considerations when it comes to power, so it’s best to double-check the requirements of the heater you choose and hire a professional to do the installation, says Bertsch, adding that wall insulation and ventilation are also necessary.
Dry saunas have been the most popular variety at Lake Tahoe and Truckee, Bertsch says, with infrared heat being the most recent development in sauna technology that has been attractive to some homeowners. The technology heats the skin more directly, keeping the overall sauna temperature lower but providing similar effects on the body.
Finding the right space in a home goes hand in hand with thinking about how you’d like to use a sauna. Outdoors, near a shower or next to your favorite exercise space are all popular options, and not much space is needed for lower-capacity saunas. Seven-foot ceilings are the typical height to keep the temperature up and the heat in the right places.
“Retrofits would be really cool as long as people are considerate of their infrastructure,” Bertsch says.
Western red cedar and redwood are among the most popular choices for the walls, benches and accessories inside a sauna, although poplar, basswood, hemlock and pine are used. Each varies when it comes to appearance, heat and bacterial resistance and fragrance.
Saunas are generally pretty low maintenance, with regular wipe-downs with soap and water being the primary care needed. For wet saunas, it’s best to install proper drainage to keep the space inviting year after year, Bertsch says.
While not everyone is looking for a sauna in their home, the addition can be a long-term investment.
“They last. They’re pretty much indestructible,” Tanner says.
Saunas are less expensive than the spas that have been a staple of Tahoe-area luxury homes for the past two decades, Tanner adds. They can also be custom built in a matter of weeks, rather than the up-to-eight-month wait for a spa setup.
Costco sells one- to two-person sauna kits starting at $1,599. Four-person barrel saunas start around $4,000. Companies like Finnleo and Finlandia sell kits based on the specifications of a space in a variety of styles. Custom sauna additions to homes can run $15,000 or more and can sometimes accommodate large groups, include prominent glass designs and feature finishing touches like mood-setting programmable LED lighting. On the extreme affordability end of the spectrum, for about $200, there’s always a tent-like personal sauna that you can take just about anywhere.
For those looking to do it themselves, Tanner suggests doing plenty of research ahead of time, as there are significant differences in component quality. Investing in something like knot-free wood for a sauna right from the start will save homeowners headaches in the long run, he says.
But really, it’s all up to the homeowners when it comes to fulfilling their vision for a space dedicated to warmth, relaxation and thinking about life’s possibilities.
“You can get as creative as you want,” Bertsch says.
Adam Jensen is a freelance writer and former South Lake Tahoe resident.