By Katherine Lawless
Photos by Andrea Rugg
Nestled in what the Olson family calls “the back 40” for its remoteness is a secluded area where wildflowers bloom in the spring and snow falls quietly in the winter. This haven is also where their new sauna is situated, complemented by a porch designed for both solitude and visitors alike. The sauna’s design blends naturally into the earthy backdrop, and the exterior’s warm brown hues pair beautifully with the surrounding Hudson, Wisconsin, landscape. Meanwhile, the sauna room’s interior features a lighter Nordic white spruce that elegantly balances the gray of the fireplace stone. The sauna heater is also double-sided, serving as a woodburning fireplace that keeps the covered porch cozy, even on chilly days.
The Olsons certainly make the most of their backyard sauna, stating they use their “little backyard escape” every single weekend. “It’s such a nice unwind,” owner Melissa Olson says. “When the weather is bad, my husband, Joe, starts the fire, and an hour later, it’s 140 degrees in there. You just can’t imagine what it’s like to strip down to your swimsuit and walk into that space.
There is always this collective ‘ahhh…,’ and you just soak it up.”
Before building the sauna, those 2.5 acres of the Olson property hadn’t been used much, with the notable exception of hosting a family wedding ceremony. Melissa had been considering building a simple screened porch in the backyard, and she was still entertaining the idea when she was invited to visit a friend’s cottage in Ontario. While in Canada, the group enjoyed lounging in a rustic bathhouse, and Melissa began dreaming of having this simple experience at her own home. “It was so deeply relaxing and healing,” she says. “We didn’t even do a lot of talking because we were just enjoying the moment.”
When she returned home to Wisconsin, Melissa told her husband about her newfound interest in a sauna. Joe was skeptical, but she continued researching sauna styles and reached out to a mutual friend and architect, John Kalmon, about the possibilities. (At the time, Kalmon—who now works in Montana—owned J.P. Kalmon Architecture in Hudson.) He asked the Olsons to send him a wish list of what they wanted for the space and used those bullet points to capture and draw up a plan for the sauna.
“It was such a fun little project,” says Kalmon. “And I’m very interested in projects where [the clients] take ownership.” During initial talks, Kalmon suggested that the sauna changing room could also be a screened porch, so Melissa didn’t have to scrap her original idea for “the back 40.” When she discovered the Finnleo double-sided woodburning sauna heater that would both heat the sauna room and bring a woodburning fireplace to the screened porch, Joe was officially sold on the project.
Recalling their wish list, the Olsons wanted to accomplish several goals for the new structure. “We wanted something that would age nicely,” Melissa says. “It could be a destination but not too far. We can enjoy it year round. If we were going to invest in it, we didn’t want it to just be a winter escape.”
To accomplish this, they decided on a cedar wood exterior—a material that is less likely to shrink, warp, or decay, even in harsh Midwest weather. Instead of a screen on the porch, the windows are Amazing EZ-Screen Porch Windows, specially designed to let in light and keep in heat for a fraction of the cost of glass—further allowing the couple to enjoy the space for the majority of the calendar year.
To achieve the ultimate sauna design, the Olsons got in touch with Finn Sisu, a local Finnleo sauna dealer. Both Finnleo and Finn Sisu are known for their authentic Finnish-designed saunas that incorporate modern design with timeless features. The heater that sold Joe on the idea is a Saga 22T Woodburning Heater from Finnleo by Sauna360 Inc., double-sided for both an aesthetic and functional touch. Olson states she and her husband often bask in the glow of the fire after they enjoy the sauna on cold winter days.
Mark Raisanen, director of sales and marketing at Finnleo, emphasizes home saunas are rapidly rising in popularity—due to both increased interest in the wellness industry and the excellent circulatory health benefits a sauna provides. Woodburning heaters, such as the one the Olsons have, are popular because of their “traditional feel” and softer heat, making the sauna even more comfortable to use.
Another goal was for the sauna’s look and feel to match the surrounding prairie. “We wanted to have very simple lines, but there are little details that give it some visual interest,” says Melissa, who adds Crimson Valley Construction built the physical structure. The exposed wood beams, gray stone fireplace, and large windows give the space a rustic touch—resembling a picturesque, cabin-like spa just paces from the main home.
For centuries, saunas have been used all over the world for their numerous health and wellness benefits, and already, the Olson family is feeling these perks. Melissa says she “sleeps like a rock” on days when she uses the sanctuary-like sauna.
In fact, both the sauna and porch have quickly become a favorite spot for the whole family to rest and relax, including the couple’s young grandson who likes to play with his toys in the cool space beneath the Abachi benches—all while his parents and grandparents enjoy the heat above. Melissa says, “It’s truly an opportunity to slow down and be present in the moment.”