A sacred place: Sauna traditions change slowly

The sauna is an important place that people in Finland have been seeking out century after century and decade after decade. In Helsinki, saunas have gradually changed from private saunas inside homes to shared saunas for all tenants of a building.

Written by Pi Mäkilä Photos by Sami Heiskanen

It should surprise no one that Finnish people love sauna. There are as many as 2.8 million saunas in Finland. A home with no sauna is a rare sight – the broad selection of saunas available makes it easy for people to enjoy them. Sauna has also remained popular throughout centuries and decades.

Sauna continues to be a word that mainly evokes positive associations. Sauna is a sacred place where set customs are followed very carefully. Appreciation towards saunas has been preserved extremely well,” says Hannu Saintula, chairperson of the board of the Finnish Sauna Society.

A sauna hat with a text "I heart sauna".
Unesco listed the Finnish sauna culture as intangible cultural heritage last year.

Saintula points out that there is a specific state of mind linked to sauna, which everyone who has ever stepped in a sauna might recognise.

“Sauna provides an opportunity to relax but also to have discussions. This is why going to the sauna may be either a very serene moment or a social event full of lively conversation.”

According to Saintula, sauna habits in Finland have not changed much in recent decades.

“The varying sauna cultures are mainly related to the type of sauna: whether it is a private sauna where you bathe with family or a public sauna, for example. The sauna’s location, especially whether it is close to a waterway, also influences the sauna customs. In a sauna close to water, the bathing session can last much longer than in a small and electrically heated urban sauna.”

From cellar saunas to the topmost floors

In the last few years, saunas have increasingly moved to shared facilities instead of each home having its own sauna. According to architect Kirsti Sivén, this phenomenon is prevalent within the Helsinki Metropolitan Area in particular: when the goal is to use all living facilities efficiently, it is preferable to build one sauna for the entire building. Shared residential arrangements are also a part of an environmentally-friendly lifestyle for many.

Kirsti Siven sits at the changing room.
According to architect Kirsti Sivén, taking accessibility into account is especially important when designing shared saunas.

At Heka, new buildings no longer have private saunas in homes; instead, they focus on shared saunas, often located on the topmost floor of the building.

“In the past, shared saunas were often placed in the basement. Currently, land use planning is directing that saunas be built on the top floors, but the tenants often prefer this solution, too. In this case, you can build a small terrace on the top floor or roof for cooling down and admiring the city’s views, for example. With buildings like this, more people get to enjoy a view of the sea or something else, even if they do not have such views from their home,” Sivén says.

Building shared saunas allows for greater investments in the sauna facilities.

When shared saunas are built, it is possible to invest more in the facilities.

“The facilities can be made better and more pleasant. They can also provide a setting for a more communal type of living,” Sivén says.

The architect believes that apartment buildings will have even fewer private saunas in the future.

“Sooner or later, this trend may also reach other Finnish cities. However, saunas will continue to be built, and there will be demand for shared saunas since the sauna traditions are hardly going anywhere. Bathing in a sauna is such an ancient ritual in Finland that its foundations will not change very quickly,” Sivén says.

Easy maintenance and accessibility

The appearance and material choices of saunas have indeed changed quite slowly. According to Sivén, there is now an increasing number of heater types and lighting solutions available.

Sivén has been involved in the design of Heka’s saunas in Kulosaari and Kalasatama, among other places.

Saintula throws some water at the sauna.
Kotiharju Sauna is the only traditionally wood-heated block sauna remaining in Helsinki.

“In shared saunas, accessibility is key, since people with physical disabilities also need to access the sauna. Otherwise, we have focused on the easy maintenance and the ease of cleaning the benches, for example, in the saunas in Heka locations. You shouldn’t choose materials that are difficult to clean for shared sauna facilities, no matter how trendy the materials are,” Sivén says.

She also points out that most people like going to the sauna with only a small group of family members, which should also be remembered when designing the shared saunas of buildings.

“Of course, people also like having open sauna hours. But if the building is very large and the aim is to build several saunas, it is sufficient if there is one larger sauna, while the others are proportioned for one family. Even in terms of energy consumption, it wouldn’t be wise to build large saunas to be used by small groups,” Sivén says.

Cooling-down terraces attract tenants

According to Saintula, the popularity of saunas is also influenced by their availability. If the sauna in their building is in bad condition and has poor ventilation, tenants seek out their sauna time elsewhere.

“It’s great that saunas are updated to meet modern requirements. I believe that, in new buildings where the shared saunas are on the top floors and materials have been invested in, saunas are also used more frequently,” Saintula ponders.

Personally, Saintula is a devoted supporter of public saunas. This is why he has followed, with great interest, the City of Helsinki’s plans for offering companies plots for building public saunas, among other plans.

“Also in Espoo, saunas will be built on a coastal street, and Helsinki and Vantaa are also planning similar activities,” he says.

Saintula dries himself at the shower room.
Hannu Saintula, chairperson of the Finnish Sauna Society, goes to the sauna daily. He favours public saunas in particular.

The increase in public saunas also allows companies to combine multiple service concepts, Saintula adds.

“Obviously, arranging a traditional smoke sauna experience may be difficult in urban conditions, but many urban residents are happy with just enjoying a spacious sauna with good ventilation and perhaps a view of a natural waterway. Many are also hoping to see café or restaurant services in connection with a sauna, and business owners seem to have taken note of these wishes,” Saintula says.

A room for cooling down or a small terrace also make a sauna more appealing.

“Those are built in connection with shared tenants’ saunas quite often, which is nice. Of course, I hope that these saunas are made appealing in every way.”

Christmas sauna remains popular

Even if there are no queues to shared tenants’ saunas at other times, there are at least two days of the year when people in Finland want to go to sauna: Midsummer and Christmas. For many, going to the sauna is a must during these holidays, and they would also like to bring a traditional birch bundle with them.

“In private saunas in people’s homes, the Christmas sauna traditions may be centuries old. For example, people may go to the sauna at a specific time with a specific group and enjoy a specific dish after the sauna. Many people would like to continue their own traditions in public or shared saunas, but this may be difficult if the sauna is very popular and everyone wants to go there at the same time,” Saintula says.

Going to the sauna may be either a very serene moment or a social event full of lively conversation.

Saintula believes that many people in Finland take going to the sauna for granted, and they may not quite understand the significance of the fact that Finnish sauna culture is now considered intangible cultural heritage by Unesco.

“Going to the sauna is such an essential part of Finnish life that it might be good to show a bit more appreciation towards it,” he ponders.

A picture of  Hannu Saintula and Kirsti Sivén outside of Kotiharjun sauna.
Hannu Saintula and Kirsti Sivén agree that easy cleaning and maintenance are important qualities when choosing the materials for shared sauna facilities. Trendiness comes second.

More comfortable saunas

In the last few years, the sauna facilities in Heka buildings have seen notable changes.

“In the past, shared saunas were built in basements, but now they are often located on the top floors. The aim is to make the sauna facilities more elegant and pleasant than before in other ways, too,” says Vesa Jurmu, Heka’s property director.

At Heka, new buildings no longer have private saunas in homes.

“The sauna culture has changed somewhat, and saunas are booked less frequently than in previous years. Then again, modern and comfortable sauna facilities are very popular in many locations,” Jurmu adds.

The easiest way to book a weekly sauna session for yourself is by emailing Heka’s customer service department and stating the times that suit you the best.

“Often, there are plenty of timeslots available, but the process is quicker if you say which times work the best for you,” says Laura Kapanen, Heka’s customer service secretary.

It is also worthwhile to contact Heka about the Christmas sauna as soon as possible. Heka suggests the hours for the Christmas Eve sauna to the building committees.

“The building committee makes the final decision about the schedule of the Christmas sauna in their own building. The committees should inform Heka of the Christmas saunas in early December,” Kapanen adds.