I’ve had clients snap photos of resort features on their phones to share in project planning meetings when they experience a new amenity that feels both amazing and achievable. Saunas and steam showers fit that description, and are among the amenities sought by an increasing number of wellness-focused homeowners. I reached out to three professionals experienced with the benefits and particulars of these features last week to get their thoughts and suggestions. There responses via email can enhance your next spa-inspired home project too.
“There is higher demand for health and wellness systems and creating your own personal spa at home,” declares San Francisco-based plumbing contractor Phil Hotarek about steam shower and sauna interest from his high end residential clients. Given their popularity and new models available from major manufacturers, steam showers are more within reach than many homeowners think, he notes. A steam shower should be thought of as “an investment in quality of life and home value,” he suggests.
Michael Gilbride, a designer and remodeler based in New York’s Hudson Valley who primarily works on second homes in the popular vacation region, is also seeing these trends, he says. “Steam showers are definitely a must-have investment as people are upgrading their homes. I think some people missed them when gyms were closed during the pandemic and some just like having the space to themselves at home.”
Gilbride is also seeing interest in saunas, particularly among clients who enjoy yoga and nature, he says. This is true for both traditional saunas and the newer infrared models. “There’s interest in both, because there is curiosity about the new technology,” he observes and sauna requests are tied to clients’ overall wellness routines.
Sauna vs. Steam Shower
Both amenities have wellness (and potentially resale) benefits, but they work differently. “While infrared can be a lower cost to operate, it’s important to understand how they work,” Gilbride explains. “Traditional saunas heat air at a high temperature. Infrared saunas heat the body directly at a lower temperature.”
“ Understanding the difference between the two is critical,” Hotarek cautions. “A traditional sauna increases your core temperature with dry heat, therefore, you will experience more feeling of heat. Infrared uses red light, so it does not feel as hot in the room, but your core temperature increases faster. In an infrared sauna, the heat of the room will be more bearable but you sweat a lot more. Because of this, people can last longer in an infrared sauna and therefore experience more of the health benefits.” (It should go without saying, but we’ll say it anyway: Consult with your health advisor before experiencing any new health-related product or service – including saunas and steam showers!)
The traditional sauna, long popular in Scandinavia, the Baltics and Eastern Europe, can be designed into a primary bathroom for one or two users, or in a separate structure for multiple users. (They’re the rooms with wood benches and paneling that you see in health clubs.)
“I am recommending traditional/infrared sauna combos,” Hotarek shares. “There are benefits to having both and the cost is not much different in having a combo.” The plumbing contractor comments that the design and dimensions of the sauna are critical. “The most common mistake is not understanding that dry heat in a sauna rises pretty quick to the ceiling instead of circulating like it does in a steam room. Because of the physics of how a sauna works, it is recommended to have a ceiling height of seven to seven and a half feet with two two-tier benches. I see some saunas with eight foot or higher ceilings and this is just not ideal.”
Other details to discuss with your professional team include the type of wood, bench configuration, location of the control and temperature sensor. Your design team can advise on the best options for your space and budget. Your health team can advise on the best option for your health and well-being. Hotarek does make this recommendation: “Keep the design simple and be sure to be very detailed. You really want an expert to be involved with the installation. I see far too many installation errors on site visits that affect the performance and longevity of the system. Systems that are installed correctly to every last detail last a very long time and deliver all the health and wellness benefits to the end user for years to come.”
What are those benefits? “With a temperature range of 110 to 120 degrees Fahrenheit, steam showers can’t match the anti-aging benefits of hotter traditional saunas. Yet, they excel in other areas, relieving stress, inflammation and nasal congestion,” reports Gregory Charlop, MD, an Atlanta-based physician, speaker, and author of Dr. Greg’s Green Home Makeover.
He does caution users to “be mindful of the risk of mold growth; ensure proper disinfection and ventilation post-use. Athlete’s foot can be a concern, as can dehydration—so stay hydrated!” He’d love to see manufacturers add antimicrobial features, he says, as well as leg massaging jets for athletes and red lighting for relaxation and sleep quality.
When it comes to saunas, Charlop shares, “Traditional saunas can reach higher temperatures (150 to 180 degrees Fahrenheit) than infrared saunas (120 to 140 degrees), offering more anti-aging benefits like reduced inflammation and a potentially lower risk of cardiac death. Infrared saunas are generally safe and can reduce muscle pain and improve sleep.” He cautions users to prioritize hydration when exposing themselves to saunas, though noting that infrared models are generally safe for most users. Pregnant women and individuals with chronic health conditions should consult with their doctors before using steam showers or saunas, he cautions.
A steam shower is typically going into your primary suite for use by the homeowners, but home gyms are also popular spots for residential steam rooms, Hotarek observes. It’s easiest to install a steam shower in an area without a window, and with standard height ceilings since it will be completely enclosed. Its steam generator needs to be accessible, so that factors into placement options too.
An infrared sauna can be sited almost anywhere you have power and space. There are numerous sizes and configurations available, so it’s going to depend on how you want to use yours. Gilbride likes a model with lounge seating that doesn’t require a full room build-out, he shares.
A traditional sauna has more operational considerations, and may be in a primary suite or even in an outdoor space. “If you’re going with an outdoor sauna, really consider the path you’re taking in the winter months. You don’t want to build out too far from a door; the weather dips the romance of walking out in a robe and slippers fades very quickly,” Gilbride cautions. (Individuals from Northern climates with sauna traditions may disagree on cultural grounds!)
“I am seeing more outdoor installations or in a home gym or pool house,” Hoterek says about his Northern California clientele. They don’t require water, as steam showers do, which gives them more placement options.
Traditional saunas can be enhanced with full spectrum LED lighting, and infrared models can get chromotherapy and Bluetooth speakers, Gilbride comments. Hotarek adds chromatherapy and smart home integrations to that list.
Hotarek is seeing aromatherapy, chromatherapy lights, music, and wireless integration as great new upgrades for steam showers, along with better quality steam (enhanced by whole house water filtration). “With some systems, you can start the steam shower with voice command or from your smart phone, so you don’t have to wait in the bathroom for the steam room to heat up,” he adds.
“I believe we all strive to live well,” Gilbride suggests. “If you are coming home from work or a stressful call, sometimes the best thing you can do is take the time to reset.” Steam showers and saunas are easy ways to “create a do not disturb barrier from the outside even if for 10 to 20 mins,” the designer adds.
Soldiers in the Ukrainian army – for whom even a brief barrier from the outside has physical and mental health benefits – are the beneficiaries of two ongoing sauna donation campaigns. Saunas For Ukraine is based in nearby Estonia and has already sent mobile units to the front. Sauna Aid, a multi-country initiative sponsored by the International Sauna Association, provides saunas and sauna access to civilians and refugees in trouble spots around the globe.
Both nonprofits are providing these respite facilities to war-torn Ukraine. As Sauna Aid’s Mikkel Aaland observed in a recent trip report, (and I believe this applies wherever people are fighting their own private battles as well as the military kind), “There is no war in sauna.”
Contributors Charlop, Gilbride and Hotarek will be sharing more sauna and steam shower insights in an hour-long Clubhouse conversation tomorrow afternoon (September 6, 2023) at 4 pm Eastern/1 pm Pacific. You can save the date and join this WELLNESS WEDNESDAYS discussion here. If you’re unable to attend, you can catch the recording via Clubhouse Replays here or the Gold Notes design blog here next Wednesday.