This Home Will Make You Want to Build Your Own Sauna

This Home Will Make You Want to Build Your Own Sauna

By Ben Norris / Photos by Tim Van de Velde
A modern home in Finland revolves around three pillars of traditional family life: the kitchen, the fireplace, and the sauna.

The suburb of Oulunkylä, less than five miles north of central Helsinki, is home to a mixture of wooden villas, row houses, and concrete apartment buildings. On a sloping plot next to her parents’ home, Vilma and her husband, Juho, wanted to build a structure that could fit in with its surroundings but feel completely their own. Working with architect Tuomas Siitonen, the couple had a few requirements going into the project: The home needed to be made of wood, preserve the views from the house next door, and have a separate living space for Vilma’s grandmother. 

 For the exterior they chose Siberian larch, a dense wood that changes with time to a silvery-gray color. The dip in the center of the roof preserves the eastward vista for Vilma’s parents next door, while the back of the structure—which is attached but with a separate entrance—was designed as a live-alone apartment for Vilma’s grandmother. The kitchen was one of Vilma and Juho’s major concerns when considering the interior design. With a shared passion for cooking, they wanted to maximize kitchen space while keeping the area open so they could chat with family or guests while preparing food. 

Carpenter Matti Salminen, a family friend, built the birch cabinets and island for the kitchen of a new home outside of Helsinki. The architect, Tuomas Siitonen, situated a lofted family room on the mezzanine above.

The kitchen is outfitted with a built-in refrigerator by Norcool and an AEG cooktop and oven.

 The couple enlisted the help of Matti Salminen, a family friend and carpenter, to customize the space. Using a cultivated variety of birch with a wavy grain, Salminen created a consistent, organic surface with plenty of storage and countertop space. The island is a particularly clever way to make the most of a tight area: One side contains a built-in refrigerator and freezer; on the other, long shelves store glassware. 

 Across from the kitchen, floor-to-ceiling windows open up to an expansive terrace. As Siitonen explains, "The idea was to bring the greenness and garden into the house." In the warmer months, the terrace becomes a second living room: the family moves a table and chairs outside to enjoy the long, sunny days of the Finnish summer. 

The Carlos Scarpa chandelier and dining chairs by Werner West are both family heirlooms; the table is another custom design by Salminen.

The flooring and stair risers are European ash, treated with a varnish that was tinted one percent white.

Salminen chose flame birch for the cabinetry for its remarkable wavy wood grain.

The loft-like space above the kitchen is a family room used mainly for playing music: piano, guitar, trombone, and drums. It also contains the house’s only television. Vilma wanted the main living space to inspire interaction, so the focal point of the living room below is a fireplace, rather than a media console. Similarly, the home’s three bedrooms are small but comfortable, providing a place for privacy while encouraging family members to interact together in the larger public spaces. 

The ground-floor sauna, one of the home’s central gathering spots, is built from stained alder. The electric heater is from the Finnish company Iki.

 On Sunday evenings, the family usually heads downstairs to their sauna. For Finns, sauna ownership isn’t luxurious; it’s a deeply ingrained part of the culture. Situated on the ground floor of the house, the sauna has easy access to the front porch, which is ideal for taking jäähy—a break from the heat to get fresh air. The kiuas, the stove that heats the sauna, is electric and can be set on a timer, making it easy to warm when Vilma and Juho want to unwind after a long day of work. The stove’s cylindrical tower of exposed rocks is both aesthetic and functional, allowing for different intensities of steam depending on where the water is thrown. 

Because the sauna is beneath the living space, Siitonen proposed dark colors to create an underground, cave-like feel. Vilma points out that the "peaceful" darkness of the painted alder is reminiscent of traditional smoke saunas. 

The bookshelves lining the walls of the living room were inherited from family.

Salminen built the bunk beds out of birch, Finland’s most plentiful tree species, for the couple’s children.

A collection of vintage furniture, including a rattan armchair and a drafting table, is gathered around the terrace fireplace, which shares a volume with the hearth in the adjacent living room behind. Outdoor sconces are from iGuzzini.

From the warmth of a bespoke sauna, the seemingly endless Finnish winter doesn’t feel quite so tough anymore. Vilma’s tip: Add a drop of beer to the stove to conjure the smell of summer.

The exterior is clad in Siberian larch, which doesn’t require paint and will develop a gray patina.


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