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Sympathy for the Devils: Zoning and Planning & the Building Inspector

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Some municipalities don’t give a damn

In rural places like Montana, Alaska, even Northern Minnesota, you pay your taxes and if you build a sauna, only the far off neighbors will come by.  People know how to do things. If they mess up and their house starts on fire, well, they’re on their own with their garden hose.  A wild frontier with mostly capable, self sufficient inhabitants.

In other places, Zoning and Planning carry a big stick

ln Minneapolis or Boston, for example, if a building inspector sees construction material out front, they can stop their government issued vehicle and barge right in with the swagger and authority of a cop.  If they don’t see a conforming Building Permit clearly displayed, they will rant and rave.  They will write “Cease and Desist” right on you countertop with a thick black marker.  They will reach for their clipboard and start issuing citations: nice try, but now you have to play in their sandbox.  And they’re going to make you pay.  And pay.  Legal Proceedings.  Downtown.  Parking.  Limited Hours.  Lines.  Stamps. Fees.  Fines.

Why Building Inspectors get worked up

Building codes exist for a reason.  There are dumb shits out there that cut corners, don’t do things the right way.  Worse, some amateur builders create dangerous situations.

why Building Inspectors get worked up
This is why Building Inspectors get worked up

Developed countries have Zoning & Planning Departments because developing countries have risen from mistakes and mud into a world of safe buildings that don’t fall down, or burn down, or burn the neighborhood down.  Building inspectors see their share of bad work, just like cops see their share of bad drivers.  And it’s their asses on the line.  So, when it’s a raggamuffin amateur effort, building inspectors have every right to get worked up.

Building Inspectors don’t like grey areas

Building a sauna is completely foggy to most Zoning & Planning Departments.  Not with steam, but with an aura of uncharted waters that lead to red flags.  Building a sauna must fall into the “no” category somewhere.  There’s water.  There’s water surrounding electricity.  Electric stove?  There’s 240v by God.  There’s plumbing.  There’s grey water.  There’s the potential for mold.  And nudity.  Walking into your Zoning & Planning office looking for opinions on your sauna plan is like walking into your police precinct and looking for opinions on your latest strain of hydroponic ganja.  They will arrest you, or dismiss you:  “Sauna? Oh, that’s a spa. You want to build a spa in your house?  Not my department.  Commercial Division.  THIRD floor.  Next?”

Untangling the wires of sauna building rules and regulations

Whether building a sauna or a sand box, these are the two municipal compliance aspects to consider:

  1. Zoning:  Zoning exists so neighbors don’t get pissed off.
  2. Code:  Code exists so your house doesn’t fall down.

All you have to do, when building your own sauna, is to make sure you comply with both of these.  Zoning and code.  Not based on how you see it, but based on how your municipality legislates it.

Building an indoor sauna with an electric stove:

Become educated.  You can wire 240v on your own, as a homeowner, but why not hire a licensed electrician?  They will handle permit.  Most often, you don’t need a structural permit for building a sauna inside your dwelling.  You can interior frame your sauna (non load bearing) and be sweating by Tuesday.

Building an outdoor sauna with a wood fired stove:

What are the zoning requirements for putting a shed in your backyard?  Chances are, there’s a side yard setback (often as little as 1′ from property line).  There are size restrictions.  Secondary structures under 100 square feet generally do not require a building permit.  (Hark!  My 8×12 backyard sauna design = 96 square feet!)  Follow that code.

What you do in your own “shed” is your own business.  Some want to use their shed for potting plants.  Some want to store their crap.  Some may want to brew beer.  In our “sheds” we want to sweat like Esa Tikkanen at his Tampera Finland lake cabin.  This should not be illegal.  This should be supported.  We should be able to do this on our own property, without being paranoid.  We should be able to live longer if we want to.

Tips on how to navigate through the paranoia:

Use a quality wood burning sauna stove.  A well engineered wood burning sauna stove burns efficiently.  When you fire up a quality wood stove, it will emit smoke for the first few minutes, then it will burn clean.  (gasification).  Unlike indoor fireplaces or outdoor fire pits, your wood burning sauna stove will not be emitting much smoke, one less thing for a nosey jealous neighbor to know about.  BONUS:  you will burn less wood, more hot = kuuma in Finnish.

Read building codes.  Most municipalities post building codes online.  Do this instead of calling and bugging your zoning and planning office.  An educated sauna builder pounds better nails.

Ask general questions, if you have to ask any.  Don’t use the word “sauna”.  EXAMPLE:  If you want to build a sauna in your garage, consider following the trail that you want to brew beer in your garage.  Follow all the proper codes and rules, then, at the last minute, change your mind and build a sauna in your garage.

Live your life.  Don’t let the downside of the risk outweigh your opportunity.

Do it right, and safe, and have fun.


clint jumping in snow after sauna round

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6 thoughts on “Sympathy for the Devils: Zoning and Planning & the Building Inspector”

  1. Hey Glenn, I live and work in south Mpls and just starting the exciting journey of building a wood burning sauna in my garage. I know I will have questions and need advice along the way. Can we be in touch as stuff comes up? My first hurdle seems to be finding a stove that is UL listed and up to code standards. I wanted to make my own, but seems unacceptable in the world of inspectors and codes. Any advice?

  2. Hey Glenn,

    First of all this site is the best. I think about sauna more than anything but eating and my kids. I’ve just tilted over to thinking of buying or building one at home and this is super helpful. Question, I’m in South Minneapolis, do you have any pictures of other saunas and how they have fit into the standard S Mpls yard?

  3. Also, am I right that as long as I keep my sauna under 100’ and talk to my neighbors, I may not have to pull any permits or get any approval in Mpls? I’m thinking about a 8X12 just off my back deck.

  4. Drew: I”ve had good results with the “don’t ask, don’t tell” program vis a vis an external shed becoming my health and wellness (sauna) oasis. What we do in our own sheds are our own business. Some plant tomatoes, some store bikes. We choose to heat a small room and sweat. As far as the wood stove goes, when we install a kick ass authentic sauna stove and use dry seasoned firewood, the stove only emits smoke for the first few minutes after firing, until the chamber is up to temp and gasification takes hold. This efficiency means that neighbors will be subject to far less smoke than a conventional fireplace. In most cases, a Mrs. Cravitz won’t even know if/when the stove is lit or not. These are my findings and experience. “Don’t ask don’t tell” works for me. Secondary structure means it has nothing to do with your house or insurance man, my opinion. If this is too renegade, understood, and let me know the success you have with a more conservative route to sauna market.

  5. Drew: You could come check out my backyard set up. It is part of a larger “garage mahaul” that I built (2 car garage, loft upstairs, etc.). Send me a fax and we can set it up. Further, search on this site “guest post” and you’ll see a few examples of the 8×12 set up, which i believe to be the pinnacle of an urban backyard sauna set up. Also, check out Clintmeisters:

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