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Sauna building with place in mind

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Let’s visit with Mark who shares his sauna building with place in mind in New Hampshire. Welcome Mark!

“It is earth’s eye; looking into which the beholder measures the depth of his own nature.” 

Henry David Thoreau, “The Ponds”

I am sitting on a sauna bench by a hot stove, on a cold and clear night in Lapland, with steam rising off my naked, sweat-soaked body, when a question comes to mind: what could be better than a sauna on the edge of a New Hampshire pond? 

This question is natural to someone, like me, who lives on a one-hundred-and-forty-acre farm in the Connecticut River valley. As it happens, too, on our New Hampshire farm, down below the house and barns, past the orchard and under a grove of old sugar maples, is a spring-fed pond.

So, when we decided to draw up the plans for our sauna (with the architectural and design chops of our Finnish friend Jer) we sited the building near the pond’s edge. We were also thinking about the outbuilding on the other side of the pond. For us, it was important that our design and build fit with the character of the other buildings, the oldest of which was constructed in the 1790s.

We designed our sauna with the best features of the dozens of saunas we experienced in Lapland as well. Our building includes four parts, each 6×8 in size: the hot room, with a window that looks out in the poplar trees behind the building and a window on the interior wall; a transitional space (with a drain) for cooling and rinsing during cold and windy winter nights; a dry area for dressing and cooling (with a wide bench for relaxing); and an outdoor covered porch.

Later, next to the entry steps, we placed a cedar duckboard platform where we now take most of our after-sauna rinses. (We live on a less-traveled dirt road, and so naked bodies on the edge of a farm pond are no concern.) Along with the design ideas we brought back from Finland, our sauna build relied on the practical wisdom in Pertti Olavi Jalasjaa’s The Art of Sauna Building (1981) and Glenn’s Build Your Own Sauna (2016).

The build began mid-summer, with my son Nathaniel, who had worked a few summers with a local builder. And because I am not a carpenter, we were fortunate that our dear friend Laura offered the use of her tools in the mobile woodworking shop she had parked behind one of our barns. 

Ready for round one at Mark’s New Hampshire Sauna

First, I ordered clear cedar for the hot room, arranged a delivery of pine from the lumberyard, and picked out two doors and a half dozen windows from an architectural salvage yard. I then harvested a beautiful (and straight) cherry tree, stripped the trunk of bark, to use for the two posts over the porch. Finally, I picked up the phone to talk with Darryl Lamppa. And before long I was sliding a beautiful Kuuma wood stove off a semi-truck into the back of my pickup. 

Feeling good heat, all over, with Mark’s sauna stove

By the fall, Nathaniel headed back to college and the weather cooled. So I fired up the stove for heat and taught myself how to build sauna benches, nail up interior walls, and put together duckboards for the floors. On the warmer days, I finished up the porch decking and brought in the tractor to move granite slabs for the steps––and to haul the stones I gathered from the brook to match the other building foundations on our property. Finally, following a winter using our new sauna, we kicked off the spring with friends who gathered to help with the finish carpentry on the windows and doors.

At every stage of the build, most importantly, we were thinking about place. Though a short walk from the house, the sauna has no electricity, and we use a woodstove for heat, as we do in our home, with cord wood from our land––a mix of oak, maple, ash, and birch. We use candles for light and heat pond water in a tank that we then pour into buckets for washing. Inside the building there is a space for cooling off, with a wide cedar-plank bench for relaxing on cold winter nights. Outside there is a porch for shelter from summer rains and a path of stones from the front steps of the building to the edge of the pond. 

For after all, saunas are places. Both the build we undertake, and the culture we build into our experience of sauna, matter more than we might think. We learned this over many years, skiing in northern Finland, where we discovered in the experience of wilderness saunas a part of ourselves: the deep pleasures of retreat to a place apart from other activities and concerns––whether next to a mountain cabin in a national park, or alongside a forest stream or lake––where we found the familiar pleasures of wood heat, and where we delighted in the promise of relaxation and renewal that greets you at the door of every sauna.

Back here, at Water Run Farm, the experience of an authentic Finnish sauna deepens our relationship to the place we call home. We cherish the seasonal practice of cutting and stacking wood. We take pleasure in kindling a fire. And we savor the sauna itself: the slow building of heat, the release of cedar scent, and the sensation of slipping a warm and naked body into the cold, clear water of the pond. Here, on a dirt road in the woods, whether relaxing with one another, or in convivial company of friends, the experience of sauna is now part of the place we call home.

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