Creating a wellness refuge

A backyard sauna can offer health, social benefits

mobile sauna units
John Pederson, co-founder of Stokeyard Outfitters, takes a cooling bath after a session in one of the mobile sauna units at Sauna Village, his company’s experience center and sauna showroom in Tangletown. Photo by Andrew Hazzard
For people making their home a refuge, a backyard sauna can help reduce stress, and Southwest Minneapolis is full of experts ready to help people create that sanctuary.

“Twenty steps into your backyard is an escape,” said local sauna enthusiast Glenn Auerbach.

Auerbach, a Kenny resident, literally wrote the book on building your own sauna. The founder of the “SaunaTimes” blog published a do-it-yourself guide, “Sauna Build, From Start to Finnish,” that breaks down the best size and style of projects for any individual.

Auerbach has been a sauna evangelist for years and says the demand today is higher than ever before. He built his first backyard sauna in his old home at 35th & Aldrich in 1991 and built another at his Kenny home in 2003. Today he is part of the sauna community that gathers at Sauna Village, formerly known as The Yard, at 47th & Nicollet, run by Stokeyard Outfitters.

The most common questions he gets from people looking to build their own sauna are about setback requirements, wood versus electric stoves and the ideal room size for the hot room.

When taken as a do-it-yourself project, saunas can be built for between $6,000 to $7,000, he said.

“The other thing about the DIY build is it’s very empowering,” Auerbach said.

People can work with friends or relatives on the project and complete it at their own pace. And unlike tiling your own bathroom, a sauna doesn’t have to be the most aesthetically pleasing thing in the world, it just needs to be well-insulated with a good stove.

“It can be perfect with its imperfections,” he said.

A good sauna creates, and harnesses, good heat and good heat is kind of hard to describe, Auerbach said. But there is a word for it, at least in Finnish — lampömassa — which roughly translates to dense heat. Think about a cast iron skillet versus a cheap frying pan, he said, both get hot, but one delivers consistent, quality heat.

Kenny resident Glenn Auerbach
Kenny resident Glenn Auerbach is the founder of the SaunaTimes blog and the author of a book on building your own sauna. He believes a backyard sauna can offer a place of escape, wellness and social gatherings for any home. Photo by Andrew Hazzard

Many sauna advocates recommend wood- fire stoves made by Kuma, but there are a range of electric and hybrid options that can give effective heat. Wood-fire Kuma stoves sell for around $1,800 but will last a lifetime and require little to no maintenance. Other wood-fire or electric stoves can go for around $500 but may need more upkeep. If people can afford the wood-fire stove, they should get it, Stokeyard Outfitters’ Teke O’Reilly said.

For those less inclined to do-it-themselves, there are local professionals who will handle the work for them.

Eric Bongard, of Voyageur Custom Saunas, specializes in building custom, mobile sauna units.

Bongard has seen the sauna trend take off in recent years. Originally, he specialized in creating custom ice-fishing shanties but decided to go full time on saunas in 2017. In 2019, he made and sold 22 custom units. This year, he’s on track for 40. He sells his saunas across North America, sending the units as far as British Columbia and has done several jobs in Southwest Minneapolis.

Bongard sends any potential local customers to Stokeyard Outfitters flagship venue Sauna Village in Tangletown, where people can try out his units and get quality tips on how to maximize their sauna experience.

Many of the people who come to Sauna Village are either already thinking about getting their own unit or start to once they experience it.

“It gets the wheels turning,” John Pederson, co-founder of Stokeyard Outfitters, said.

Mobile sauna units start around $9,000 and can cost up to $20,000 depending on the size and the type of stove and wood used in the process. In-home builds cost much more, with a starting point around $50,000, Bongard said.

The mobile units are constructed from aluminum, which means, aside from scraping out the ash panel, there is essentially no maintenance for the saunas. The average backyard mobile unit is 7 by 12 feet, or 96 square feet, which is smaller than the 120-square-foot structure size that would require a city permit to build. The wheels on the structures mean there are no setback violations either. Non-mobile backyard saunas have general shed setback requirements.

Many of Bongard’s clients had hot tubs before. Hot tubs range in price from about $3,000 to $15,000 but require regular maintenance and treatment throughout their lifetime. Saunas largely do not require maintenance besides splitting wood. Proponents argue that saunas also provide health benefits hot tubs lack.

“The hot tub experience is pleasure, whereas this is wellness,” O’Reilly said.

As a more affordable option, Stokeyard Outfitters sells sauna tents. Ideal for camping or setting up for occasional weekend use, the SnowTrekker sauna tents can get up to 200 degrees and create an authentic sauna experience for $2,000 or less.

“They’re the real deal,” O’Reilly said.

The backyard sauna can turn a yard into a social venue, and proponents say they will bring crowds of family and friends together for fun and meaningful connections.

“Most people are buying saunas for the health benefits. That said, they do make a great gathering spot for their friends,” Bongard said.