Taking Comfort Anywhere: A Conversation About Mobile Saunas

Saunas are integral to the culture of Nordic countries. They are becoming more popular due to their numerous mental and physical health benefits. They are often very archetypal and combine efficiency with sobriety.

Jakob Gate is the co-founder of Native Narrative & Scandinavian Sauna. He has been creating sauna projects that combine the versatility of being mobile with the tradition and expertise of Scandinavian design. They are powered by wood heat and LED lighting from a rechargeable battery. Read more about the interview below.

Eduardo Souza, ArchDaily: How did the idea to create a mobile sauna arise?

Jakob Gate:We are both partners in life and in practice. We spent many years as architects (Jakob), and project managers (Cecilie), for some of the most prestigious firms in London’s commercial and design industries. We felt empty and decided to leave the UK in 2016 to work with charities and NGOs in the Philippines. In 2016, Native Narrative was established. For two years, we lived in low socioeconomic communities and built four Learning Centers for Children. We also designed and built a few buildings for the local government. We ran out of money after our work in the Philippines was mostly done pro-bono. When we returned to Scandinavia in October 2018, it was cold and we were ill. Saunas helped us get through winter. Both of us grew up in Sweden and Denmark, and we have fond memories of sharing saunas with our family and friends. It was wonderful to be able to connect with the Asian culture after many years spent in Asia. We began to research the history and culture behind saunas, and found that regular sauna bathing can have positive effects on your health.

© Jakob Gate / Scandinavian Sauna

We lost our loved ones to heart disease, so it was encouraging to learn about the health benefits saunas have for us. We were so inspired by Native Narrative’s architecture that we decided to create the perfect mobile sauna.

Our first client was a group of Danish winter bath enthusiasts. We had many meetings and designed the sauna to meet their needs. We have gained a lot of knowledge and many aspects have been replaced or modified since then.

Courtesy of Native Narrative

JG Saunas are timber buildings made on a custom-made trailer. They are covered with a standing seam steel roof. We have added a sauna room and a changing area. This allows users to store and change their clothes, but also acts as a temperature buffer zone. The sauna is more efficient at keeping heat longer. The glass door allows light to enter the changing area from the main sauna room, making it feel larger. The timber frame of the building is weatherproofed and insulated. We offer a variety of interior lining options in spruce and aspen. Aspen benches have no resin, so they feel colder to the skin. The thermo-treated aspen is also available. It is lighter and better suited for public heavy sauna use.

© Jakob Gate / Scandinavian Sauna
© Jakob Gate / Scandinavian Sauna
© Jakob Gate / Scandinavian Sauna
© Jakob Gate / Scandinavian Sauna

Courtesy of Native Narrative

ES: What are the major changes since it’s a mobile structure.

JG We have made it light and sturdy by focusing on weight. Many of our sauna models are easily transportable by standard cars. It is difficult to fit a lot of functions into a small space while still keeping it simple.

© Jakob Gate / Scandinavian Sauna
© Jakob Gate / Scandinavian Sauna
© Jakob Gate / Scandinavian Sauna

Every designer knows that a simple design solution can be difficult to implement and take time to create. We have created many versions and prototypes, and we have improved many aspects.

We have learned a lot from our clients and made many changes by listening to their feedback. Our saunas are a bit like the car industry. Every year, a new model is released. We don’t wait one year to update our designs or make custom modifications for each client or production. We would like to stress not only our ability, but also our willingness and capability to create bespoke saunas for clients who want something unique or personal to their sauna experience.

© Jakob Gate / Scandinavian Sauna

Mobility is a matter of personal preference. The layout we have created works well in almost all situations. We can make modifications to the floorplan or add or move windows. If that is not possible, we can even build a larger lounge. Our saunas are semi-custom suits. The basic model is already designed and we can make any modifications to suit the needs of a client.

ES: Attention to details and functionality is evident. Scandinavian design is a way to join the sauna tradition. What does tradition influence your design?

JG Saunas were built to survive in harsh Scandinavian climates, and not for pleasure. This utilitarian approach is something we enjoy and incorporate into our design process. We wanted to create a mobile building that is both practical and can be used around buildings of both modern and traditional Scandinavian architecture. A Scandinavian Sauna can be placed next to an agricultural shed or barn without it looking out of place. This is true for modern Scandinavian houses that are crisp and minimalist. It is important to make it easy to use, and not just for aesthetics.

© Jakob Gate / Scandinavian Sauna

It can be tempting to add functionality to the sauna, but it is not necessary to enhance your enjoyment of natural heat. The sauna is a useful tool that people will find attractive. The sauna is not meant to be a focal point or dominate the space. It’s an area for contemplation and enjoyment of nature. We began to look at other mobile saunas like Barrel Saunas, and we improved some design flaws, such as an oven that blocked the view, low head height, no changing room, low seating, lacks of level seating, lacks of changing area, low head height, lazy integration of the trailer, etc. We wanted a mobile sauna that was as good as permanent saunas built in Scandinavia over the centuries. This meant we didn’t have to compromise on mobility. We have created a mobile sauna that is just as good as permanent saunas, but with the added benefit of mobility. Many customers have decided to use the trailer as a permanent sauna, with the option to transport it once in a while.

© Jakob Gate / Scandinavian Sauna
© Jakob Gate / Scandinavian Sauna
© Jakob Gate / Scandinavian Sauna
© Jakob Gate / Scandinavian Sauna

ES: What is the future of prefabricated structures such as this? What are the key advantages for customers as well as the global community?

JG Our skilled craftsmen have constructed over 1600 saunas in their workshop over the past 17 years, relying heavily on their practical knowledge. Construction experience is crucial and can make a significant difference in the final product. They build similar (or very similar) structures repeatedly, which results in a better product than a sauna that is built by an extremely competent person.

© Jakob Gate / Scandinavian Sauna

What is the future for this job? Everything seems to be moving towards greater automation. This includes the tools that we currently use. We can probably expect to have higher quality and lower waste. It is possible that the role of the craftsman will change from being fundamentally a maker to becoming more of a teacher. He or she can provide input and correct the behavior of machines and oversee the results.

Customers can benefit from higher efficiency, which might lower prices and increase quality. We are curious by nature and want to improve our company’s manufacturing processes.