2011: TENT SAUNA
In 2011 I experimented with a tent-sauna as part of an architecture research project at Department 21, whilst at the RCA. I had been intrigued by sauna culture since working on an organic farm in Western Finland, and also spending time overhearing conversations in saunas at a permaculture festival called Sunrise Off Grid. I’d become fascinated by both the sensory and social conditions in the sauna + how it had a warming + anti-hierarchical effect on the groups + individuals who came and went from the space.
Trained in architecture and now working in performance design, I have always been drawn to spatial environments that have the ability to shape the social culture and tone of interaction that takes place within them. The sauna context soon became a central part of my practice + has profoundly influenced my politics + ethos as a designer; I love that something as simple as a small timber box heated to 80+ c and hosted well, can be such a quietly radical act. The sauna can be a catalyst for friendship, encounter + discussion as well as a place of quiet reflection + reconnection with the senses.
2015: HORSE BOX SAUNA
I started planning the next phase of WARMTH in 2015, and after several attempts, with support from Compass Live Art, succeeded in getting Arts Council funding to get started with the design + construction. The idea behind WARMTH has always been to try + make it free or donation-only for the public to try out, reducing the threshold + barrier that a lot of people experience when they see a sign announcing: SAUNA. I’m really grateful that the public funding from Compass + ACE allowed me to maintain a totally open-door to the sauna + I’ve often been able to have no admission fee at WARMTH pop-ups, to spread the joy of saunas + reach new audiences.
The concept of making WARMTH mobile was inspired by the many beautiful + bizarre saunas at the Mobile Sauna Festival in Teuva + coming across Sweat It Out, a project by DS Institute in Boston. I decided to convert an existing structure rather than build a cabin on a platform, and chose a Richardson Rice horse-box from a farm in Lincoln as the base for the sauna; suitable for travelling on the motorway + already weatherproof. The back doors were sealed up + it was lined with aluminium foil bubble-wrap and then battened out. The timber studwork was lined with sheep wool insulation, which has proved fantastic at keeping the heat in the structure. The floor needed re-covering, and lining with rubber to make it easy to wash down + clean.
The timbers used throughout the sauna have been carefully selected for their different properties + qualities:
The benches in the sauna are made from Thermo Aspen, heat-treated to give it greater structural stability to cope with the intense heating and cooling that happens each day in the sauna. Over the last two years the warm caramel colour of the thermo aspen has faded slightly. It now looks well-loved + worn. The benches get washed down daily with warm water; we never use harsh products in the sauna as scent is really important to the experience.
For the lining, I chose a grooved aspen board. These panels haven’t been heat treated so have retained their pale colour. We chose a fluted tongue + groove vertical boarding to match the fireproof boards around the stove. Timber for sauna-building has to be carefully selected to have as few knots as possible. (Knots release sap in the heat, which is really sticky to get off your hands/hair). The high temperatures ensure that the sauna stays clean - saunas are easier to maintain than steam rooms or hot tubs; the damp and lower temperatures in steam rooms/hot tubs allow bacteria to grow; which doesn’t happen in the 100c heat of the sauna.
The cladding + bench timber was sourced from Prestige Saunas.
The stove in my experimental tent-sauna was made by sculptor Rob Bellman from an old gas canister. It was fun to make + great to see it in use, glowing at the top with the intense heat… but when I built WARMTH I decided to do a complete upgrade.
The wood burning stove is at the heart of the sauna. I chose a powerful Kota wood-burning sauna stove from Narvi Finland and love using it. We always burn seasoned hardwood; sometimes birch, sometimes alder or aspen. We store the timber under the sauna benches to keep it dry + warm ready to burn. Our logs at the moment are seasoned silver birch, which seems to get the sauna up to a really great temperature. The bark of the birch logs makes a really good kindling.
FELT ROOF / HATS
My initial tent-sauna was timber framed, with a scaffold-wrap outer layer + entirely lined with felt. I had really enjoyed the soft, dark cocoon-like interior that it created, and its associations with Joseph Beuys and Arte Povera.
The curve on the roof of the horse box was something I wanted to preserve, and rather than lining with timber, decided to experiment with fire resistant felt. After a lot of research I found a lovely thick dark grey industrial wool felt, which is naturally fire resistant, and has stood up well to the last three years-worth of sauna sessions. I finished off the design with steel studs + washers, which resemble a grid of stars in the dark grey matt ceiling.
I was initially worried the felt would get wet with the steam + sweat, but just like the wool insulation in the walls, it breathes with changes in temperature, absorbing + releasing humidity naturally as the sauna heats + cools, and has never felt damp or attracted mould.
We also have felt hats available to wear in the sauna; I buy them round the corner from my house at a Russian supermarket. It might sound counter-intuitive, but the felt hats protect your head from the most intense heat in the sauna, and allow you to stay in the sauna longer.
There’s a special word in Finnish for the steam created by the sauna stove + stones. Löyly refers to the soft gentle steam created as water is splashed onto the heated stones. This not only increases the humidity but also the heat; there’s an etiquette in Finnish saunas to always check with fellow sauna bathers before adding more water to the stones. I like this description on the Finnmark website of the significance of löyly in Finnish culture:
In Finnic tradition, this idea of life force is anthropomorphically extended to saunas as well, so as we throw water onto the hot kiuas stones, what rises up is the life force of sauna itself, the healing löyly of gods, which is often called the "sweat of Väinämöinen". He is one of the three creator gods of ancient Finnic mythology, a wise and old shaman-like figure.
VIHTA / VASTA / VENIK
Many trees take part in creating the sauna experience. The bunches of branches used to stimulate circulation + exfoliate by whisking / whipping across your body are called vihta [vasta in Swedish / venik in Russian]. Young leaves are collected each spring in Finland and dried in bunches to be used in the sauna. The vihta can be soaked in water or heated on the stones, they are used to stimulate circulation by beating on your skin. We usually have a combination of oak, eucalyptus and linden with us in the sauna.
We also have a range of essential oils to mix into the sauna water / löyly, including pine needles, eucalyptus,
Burning tree resins to make amazing outdoor scents is our newest experiment. Outside the sauna entrance we’ve been burning mastixa resin from the Greek island of Chios. This resin burns with a clean aromatic scent, which gives the whole street a smoky sauna atmosphere. To light it we place the ‘tears’ (named because they fall in little drops from the tree trunk) onto a charcoal block. The waft of mastixa as you open the door into the sauna mixes with the löyly