The hottest home-improvement trend of them all: Saunas (© Florida Hot Tub and Sauna; courtesy of Rozycki Woodworks LLC)

Home saunas, such as Finnelo's B400, left, and barrel saunas by Rozycki Woodworks, are gaining popularity. // Courtesy of Florida Hot Tub and Sauna; courtesy of Rozycki Woodworks LLC

Saunas today are hot. Even in Texas.

James Hall, a civil-engineering consultant, relishes evenings spent in his backyard sanctuary. He shuts the door and cranks up the heat to about 200 degrees.

"Afterward, you get a real calm feeling of well-being," he says. (Bing: How long is too long to stay in a sauna?)

That may surprise some of Hall's neighbors, who think that Dallas is often steamy enough. Hall says his sauna provides not only relaxation but also a certain cachet with friends and colleagues.

"We'll have clients over, and instead of going someplace for happy hour, we'll have a sauna, a couple beers," he says.

"People think it's weird at first" but then are usually won over, he says.

Saunas have been at the core of Finnish culture for thousands of years, a traditional toasty respite in a cold and snowy climate, according to the nonprofit North American Sauna Society, an organization for those who use, build and sell saunas.

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More Americans are making space for sauna rooms by clearing out basements, converting closets and even partitioning off backyard sheds. Florida Hot Tub and Sauna, of Fort Lauderdale, Fla., says sauna sales in 2010 were up as much as 40% from 2009. Rozycki Woodworks LLC, of Royalton, Minn., says sales of its handmade barrellike outdoor saunas have been climbing about 6% a year for the past four years. Kalevi Ruuska, a Fishkill, N.Y., sauna dealer, says sales were up 50% in 2010.

"What I'm interested in is whether our American friends will sauna in the nude," says Leslie Kahn, an architect in Bethesda, Md.

She and her husband are remodeling a basement bathroom to add a sauna. Her husband says sauna sessions he experienced overseas helped with aches and pains. The couple also enjoy saunas' social aspect and hope to entertain guests with sauna parties. The sauna's cost, including installation, will be around $5,000, on top of about $12,000 for remodeling the bathroom, she says.

How they work
Besides the Euro-cool factor, saunas are growing in popularity because of their practical appeal. They are less fussy to install than other spa-type amenities. The source of their intense, radiant heat is simply stones placed inside and atop an electric heater. Some outdoor units are set up with a traditional, wood-burning stove, requiring no electricity for heating — just a good stack of firewood.

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Whether indoors or out, saunas typically are built of a light-colored wood that can withstand wide fluctuations in heat and humidity. In the U.S., western red cedar is popular and releases a pleasant scent.

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Although dry saunas can be enjoyable, many people like to add humidity by sprinkling water on the rocks. There's no need to reroute water lines and plumbing, as homeowners often do when installing a jetted whirlpool tub. There also is no water quality to maintain, as with a hot tub.

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Health concerns about jetted water in bubbly spa tubs also may be helping saunas' popularity. A 2000 study at Texas A&M University tested 43 water samples from whirlpool tubs in hotels and homes nationwide and found all had some form of microbial growth, such as fungi or staphylococcus. The reason: The water in the jet-spray pipes tends to get trapped, and bacteria may accumulate. When the jets are on, microbes are blown into the tub where a person is soaking, carried on a bubbly mist that can enter lungs or open cuts, says Rita Moyes, Texas A&M microbiology professor.

A sauna can be relatively affordable. Converting a closet into a two-person sauna might cost as little as $3,000, not including installation, while a "designer deluxe" model with digital controls and high-end lighting could climb to $10,000, says Keith Raisanen, president of Saunatec Inc., a Cokato, Minn., manufacturer and distributor. Most saunas, he says, cost $4,500 to $8,000 and seat from four to seven.

Social venue
In Washington, D.C., a 10-seat sauna in the basement of the Embassy of Finland becomes an evening hot spot, where journalists and politicos mingle on Friday nights about twice a month. Embassy spokesman Kari Mokko says he limits invitations to about 15 each time and regularly changes the guest mix.

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"The demand is so high," he says.

The sauna was built into the embassy, which was completed in 1994. Parties, considered a useful vehicle for promoting Finnish culture, came soon after.