Planning a log cabin sauna in a Luton garden

Ok. I admit it. I'm really into saunas. But not the sleazy, back room, 'how's yer father' kind. Nor a swimsuit-clad and hectic 30-second stint in the local gym. No. I'm into sauna proper.

Another thing I have to admit is, that there actually isn't a sauna in my garden yet. But it will happen this year. Read on if you want to know what's happened so far.

(And if you can't wait and want to see the finished sauna - look at the update:  Baby it's hot outside )

What I love about saunas

Saunas relax you deeply. It's a couple of hours of looking after yourself. You can't do anything other than enjoying the heat and steam, except maybe have a chat with someone you feel comfortable being with in the nude. It feels like cleaning your every pore from the inside. Afterwards, you're totally warmed through, calm, clean, fresh and rosy. 

How we did sauna when I was growing up in Germany

My parents back in Germany have a sauna in the cellar (no, we weren't posh). My dad got into it when he travelled to Scandinavia as a student in the late sixties, and just decided that we were going to have one.

The sauna was installed in the seventies, built into an otherwise unused room next to the garage. It has been one of the social hubs of the house (no, not what you're thinking, uhhh).

My mum's friends would come round one evening a week and, on another, my dad's mates would rock up. And yes, everyone would be naked, but it wasn't a gender-mixed affair, as girls and guys had their own day.They would sauna for a couple of hours or so, say from half-seven in the evening. People brought their own towels, slippers and bathrobes, but use the shower at our house, then sit on a towel in the sauna for 15 minutes or so.

Usually, you'd hear lots of natter and laughter from the ladies. On 'men's night', it would be a much quieter affair, as they would just sit and sweat in silence. There's the obligatory cool down in the garden and a quick hose-down with cold water from the garden hose, before sitting on a bench outside the sauna to natter or stare in silence until feeling cold(ish) again. Then back into the sauna and repeat.

After two or three sittings, people might have some water and/or a beer together upstairs in the living room, and sit and chat for a little longer. Everyone would pop a donation into our 'sauna-glass', which would help pay towards water and electricity.

My parents' sauna takes four people lying down and I'd say up to six sitting, and I remember the women cramming into the space sitting - like a sweat-fuelled 'kaffeeklatsch'.

Nowadays, when I visit my parents, we'll be maximum three people at a time. And although it's mixed now (did I hear you gasp?), it tends to be family only, so it's totally cool (no, really).

Public saunas where I studied

When I studied in Weimar in Thuringia, I made use of the public saunas. Initially, this was down to the fact that my first flat was a bit bijoux and didn't have a bathroom, just a toilet (yes, it was very cheap).

Saunas had been popular in East Germany, even during Cold War (no pun). There was even a sauna in the basement of the student services building canteen, but that was a cheap and nasty affair. I remember a scary cleaner in an apron sweeping around people and students drinking beer IN the sauna. So that wasn't my favourite. Much better was the Schwanseebad Sauna, where 'bathmaster' Ingo would keep everything immaculately clean and use a towel to waft the steam around the sauna cabin (this steam is called löyly in Finnish). OMG, while googling löyly, I just found the website of this sauna in Helsinki - it looks amazing!

I remember going to the Schwanseebad Sauna with my tutors from music college (yes, really). Sadly, I don't think this sauna exists anymore.

Sometimes, if we felt rich, we'd go to a bigger sauna park in Legefeld, where you'd have several different types/temperatures to choose from, or even the luxurious Toskana Therme in Bad Sulza. And yes, again, saunas would be taken in your 'birthday suit'. And the public saunas are also gender mixed. Trust me, it's fine.

Saunas in the UK - a trend yet to happen

Since moving to the UK, my sauna life jolted to a halt. Saunas haven't really caught on in the UK yet. I guess it's a combination of social norms that make it tricky for people to enjoy anything that involves getting your kit off - unless it's... you-know-what. This blog post might go some way of describing the situation (thanks guilty mother).

Also, people are already struggling to find enough space for all the heads in the family, let alone having a spare room for a hobby or a wooden cabin that you heat to 90 degrees once a week. (Actually, I once saw a built-in sauna in a posh mansion block flat behind Westminster Cathedral - it had belonged to an Italian millionaire - and apart from a small indoor sauna, it also had phone sockets... in the loo. Now, that's what I call extravagant.)

The best public sauna in the UK that I could find

It took me a good ten years to find a good public sauna with high standards of cleanliness, ample space and decent facilities - but I did. It was a recommendation from my neighbour. I was suspicious, as I hadn't found anything nice while I lived in London - and of all places - that's where I thought you'd find one.

So for the the nicest sauna spa in the UK (at least the best I could find), you drive onto a totally nondescript conference centre/hotel compound near Cambridge, that looks more like a business development centre - but the actual sauna and facilities are fantastic. However, it's a 45-minute drive from where we live and - whilst when it has deals on it is is good value - it ain't cheap. And you need to keep your swimsuit on. Nevertheless, Wyboston Lakes Y Spa was great each time we visited. Even the OH liked it.

Nude saunas in the UK

The only nude sauna I could find and try was on a naturists' site close to St Albans. I drove there on a dark winter's evening, to an unlit car park on what felt like a camping site. I had to pluck up all my courage to actually step through the door - but it was nice to know that people there would at least be okay with getting their kit off. Maybe a bit too okay. ;)

But seriously, people there were absolutely lovely. But the facilities were a little bit battered, and there was only one (hot) shower - although they did connect an outside garden hose especially for me so I could rinse down with cold water. The sauna was packed and I did hear some fascinating banter.

One place I always wanted to try is the sauna of the Finnish church in London, but at the time that I was looking, they'd had some maintenance issues and the sauna was closed. That would have possibly been a good 'naked' option.

I did see that there's also now a Russian sauna - Banya No 1 - which looks interesting.
If you're new to sauna, here are a few articles I found interesting:

Why Finland loves saunas [BBC]

Bare facts of the sauna

My dream - my own sauna

While writing this, I did another Google for saunas in the UK and there seems to be a trend. According to this article, some women in the UK won't be without their saunas - so there's hope! Currently, the range of available home saunas is limited and they're expensive. But I cannot wait any longer - I've been without decent regular access to a sauna now for 15 years.

Here's my sauna spec

  • it needs to go in the garden - there isn't enough space inside our house
  • a solid wood, log cabin is preferred, not the insulated module style
  • enough bench space with space for two adults to lie down comfortably
  • traditional heater (not infrared), but electric (not wood-fired)
  • a small changing area in front, so sauna goers can hang up their bathrobes inside (privacy)
  • it should sit at the top of our garden, where it's as far away as possible from the house, so it's like a little holiday away from home
  • 3 metres maximum width, including changing room - we need space to manoeuvre around it 
  • height under 2.5m (to meet building regulations)

What does the space look like now? 

So, this is the top of our garden. Behind the pergola, there's another tier. That's where the building should be placed. We're hoping to have at least 70cm clearance on the right, so that we can still store the brown rubbish bin behind, and can access the water butt that we'll install. The current decking and pergola will have to make way.

Before removal of the decking and pergola.

You can see, it's summer now, and we've already removed the decking and (most of) the pergola.

After removal (ish) of the decking and pergola - two posts are still standing. 

This is what the garden looks like now.

Who will supply the sauna? 

I think I have looked at every UK sauna website out there. And went in person to a few merchants too. After three years or so of checking out thousands hundreds of different options for garden saunas, we've finally settled on Keops, a company which specialises in custom-made log cabins and is happy to build a sauna into them as well. 

Before, I'd also been liaising with Zoki Saunas, but in the end, I wasn't convinced with using a module/rockwool insulated sauna cabin outside the house. Then there's also SaunaShop UK, who I'm sure supply really good self-build kits, and other bits and bobs for saunas. I might order a few accessories from them in the future. 

Were I in Germany, I'd probably have bought this log cabin sauna model, in 70mm log-size. But I decided against that, too. I guess I like to put my business into the country where I live, and if something needs repair, etc., it'll be easier to get support here in the UK.  

So, we're about to sign up with Keops, who are based near Evesham in Worcestershire. I've got this weekend to decide about a couple more basics, before placing the order. 

What roof to choose? 

One major difference is roof style. You can see the two runners up in the screenshots from the Keops website. On these photos, you can see how similar they would look, as the gable roof has to be very shallow to stay below 2.5m high. 

Should it be the 'Moderna' almost flat roof? 

Or the standard shallow gable roof?

To help me choose, I've superimposed those models above into our garden. Sorry, very bad Photoshopping. Also, the colour should be black on both of them.

Mock-up with a Moderna cabin - imagine it being painted black(ish).

Mock-up with a pitched roof cabin - just that you don't really see the roof because the pitch is so low so that we stay below 2.5m height. 

Now, if you want to see the finished sauna - look at the update:  Baby it's hot outside 

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