The word “ritual” comes up frequently when discussing the sauna Bill Hanley and his wife, Heli Mesiniemi, designed and built on their property in Somesville.
“The sauna reminded us about slowing down, being in the moment,” Hanley said. “It wasn’t about instant gratification.”
Hanley and Mesiniemi are architects. Their firm, WMH Architects, is located in Northeast Harbor. In 2014, their sauna won a design award from the American Institute of Architects.
The couple sold the Somesville property about five years ago. It’s clear, however, that the sauna contributed greatly to their quality of life.
Mesiniemi is a native of Finland, where the sauna tradition goes back thousands of years. She grew up taking saunas with her family, both at their Helsinki apartment building and at her grandparents’ farm. Her experience isn’t unusual; one estimate has 99 percent of the population of Finland taking a sauna bath at least once a week.
Given her background, it only was natural that she suggested building the sauna. Hanley didn’t need convincing; his first experience in a sauna came during a Christmas visit to Finland. The setting was a lakefront cabin reached by a five-mile hike through the forest.
“It made a big impression on me,” he said.
The sauna room seats six and is heated with a Finnish wood stove designed for the purpose.
In designing their sauna, the couple had two major concerns: They wanted privacy and they didn’t want smoke from the heating stove to directly affect neighbors. The answer to both was to site the structure in a wooded area at the back of their narrow and deep house lot.
Materials were loaded onto a neighbor’s Land Cruiser and carried as close to the site as possible. A portable generator provided electricity for power tools. Construction began in August. They first used the sauna at Christmastime.
The 10-foot-by-20-foot structure houses a changing area, an outdoor seating area and an 8-foot-by-8-foot sauna room. The sauna room seats six and is heated with a Finnish wood stove designed for the purpose. The other areas are unheated. Horizontal strips of wood provide privacy while gaps between the strips allow air to circulate.
“The idea is you’re outside and enclosed,” Hanley said. “You feel the wind, you feel the snow.”
Many modern saunas are heated by electricity. The couple said they prefer wood-heated saunas because of the “quality” of the heat, which Mesiniemi describes as “enveloping” and “sweeter” than electric heat. Heating with wood also contributes to the ritual experience of a sauna.
Using their sauna required several hours of lead time, Hanley said. “That was all part of the ritual.”
The experience began with carrying buckets of water along the path from their home to the sauna. The long walk set the stage for what was to come.
“It helped you disconnect from the day,” Hanley said. “The journey back there was part of the disconnect.”
Then a fire was started in the stove. It would take two to three hours before the sauna would reach the correct temperature — about 180 degrees F. The person tending the fire usually would busy him or herself with cleaning the sauna area while waiting.
Saunas traditionally have several levels of benches for seating. This allows the user to find the most comfortable heat range; temperatures are cooler on the lower levels. The heat source has a bin of hot stones that the user tosses water on to make steam.
“You control the humidity with the water,” Mesiniemi said.
Once the sauna reaches the right temperature, the user typically warms up inside and then goes out into seating area to cool off before returning to the sauna. The cycle usually is repeated several times.
In Finland, many saunas are located near lakes where, in the winter, a hole is cut in the ice so users can cool off with an icy dip. There is an alternative, Mesiniemi said. “If you don’t have a lake you roll in the snow.”
“It was great to lose yourself in the ritual,” Hanley said.
“It’s mentally very relaxing,” she said. “You’re metaphorically washing away the dirt. It’s really good for you.”