Intro To Sauna

For the fullest enjoyment of sauna it’s important to understand sauna. Hopefully this will provide a good, somewhat brief and beneficial introduction. 

If you’re anxious to just get to the sauna then skip down to ‘Taking A Sauna’.

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Sauna (a Finnish word pronounced ‘SOW-na’, sow rhymes with how now cow) is extremely popular throughout Scandinavia, Germany, The Netherlands and the Baltics (and perhaps not coincidentally these are also among the happiest countries in the world!). Finland has 3 million saunas for 5.3 million people, about one per household. Though not as pervasive as in Scandinavia, sauna is still quite popular throughout much of Europe and Asia.

Happiest countriesWhy sauna? For enjoyment and health. Sauna is enjoyable alone and is also a great social activity. The health benefits (further below) are numerous.

It is called sauna bathing because it is truly cleansing. After a round of sauna and a dip in the lake or under a shower your skin is as clean as it’ll ever be.

Finns (and many Swedes and Estonians) grow up with sauna bathing and most do so throughout their lives, typically three to five sessions per week with each session involving two to five rounds in the sauna. It’s not surprising then that there are nearly 3 million saunas for 5 million people in Finland. Finns say that sauna is a place for physical and mental cleansing, a place to relax, meditate and socialize. 

Sauna has traditionally also been quite popular in Minnesota, Michigan and Maine thanks to Scandinavian immigrants. Around Wolf Lake and Cokato MN as well as parts of the Arrowhead region north of Lake Superior you’ll find a sauna at every home, a slight majority wood burning, and most used every day. A friend of mine grew up bathing (with soap and water) in a sauna every night using water heated by the sauna stove and still does to this day. His kids, ranging in age from 2 to 18, do as well.

 

What Is Sauna?

SaunaladdleSauna (verb) is the practice of sitting or laying in a sauna for a short period of time until you’ve been sweating for a bit and then cooling off in a lake, shower, roll in the snow, standing outside, relaxing in a cool room or whatever you desire.  … Repeat as often as you want.

Sauna should be physically and mentally enjoyable, relaxing, invigorating and meditative.

Sauna is NOT a jump in the sauna once and then go shower. It’s taking our time for an invigorating ritual of hot cold hot cold hot cold.

 

What Is A Sauna?

A Sauna (noun) is a wood lined room heated by stones to temperatures of about 85-105°c (185-221°f). Sauna’s are naturally very dry heat and bathers ladle water on to the stones to create bursts of steam and raise the humidity. 

Sauna FogoIsland Sauna 9959b original originalFinns say that the only way to heat the stones is with a wood fire and that a wood fire sauna is always best. And yes, this is indeed so. But not because it makes the sauna itself better but simply because fire is relaxing and enjoyable. When you sit down to dinner tonight, light a candle and see if dinner time is more enjoyable.

Traditionally this was an open fire with smoke that filled the room and so the fire and smoke had to be put out before anyone could use the sauna. Today these are called Smoke Saunas or Savusaunas and are still popular. Continuous burning wood stoves with chimneys to exhaust the smoke have largely replaced the savusaunas for everyday use.

Electric (and gas) are also popular and while not as nice of an experience do offer some welcomed convenience like being able to pre-heat our sauna from anywhere with an iPhone. For many people though the routine of building a fire in the sauna stove is a key part of the ritual and enjoyment of sauna – it’s foreplay.

184549 Grotto SaunaThe woods chosen for use in a sauna for the walls, ceiling and benches are not only aesthetic but quite practical. They don’t get too hot to touch, the hygroscopic properties help to regulate the heat and moisture for a wonderful soft löyly and helps to absorb noise for a quieter and less echoey space.

When you enter a sauna you’ll typically step up a few steps to a wood platform.  Around this platform is an 18” high ‘foot bench’ that should ideally be above the top of the stones. You can sit on the foot bench for cooler temps or you can step up on to the foot bench to sit or lay on the higher sitting bench for warmer temps. Some saunas may have 3 or even 4 levels.

When on the sitting bench you ideally want all of your body above the top of the stones – that is why the benches are so high. When the benches are too low you’ll experience uneven heat – hotter near your head and colder near your feet and hot on your front facing the stove and cooler on your back. Being up above the stones results in a softer, more even, comfortable and enveloping heat around your entire body – löyly.

A sauna should be located so that it’s easy to go outside each round to cool off. A separate building is ideal but an exterior door from the sauna changing room works well.

 

Löyly

1799 Acerbi Suomalaisia savusaunassa 1920 1080jpgLöyly (pronounced kind of like ‘l – eu -i -loo’. Almost like Lou-Lou but more nuanced.) is a special word in Finnish for the environment in a sauna. It is “the purity, freshness, temperature and humidity of the air in the sauna”. 

The air in a sauna should always be fresh, not stale and the temperature about 85-105°c at bathers heads. Or 70-120°c. It should be pure with no chemicals such as chlorine, perfumes, detergents, mold, or cleaning products.

The steam from the stones is a critical element of löyly and so the environment in the sauna is not usually considered löyly until this steam has been added. It is not unusual for people to shout ‘LÖYLY!’ when this is done.

There is a popular saying among Finns, Swedes and others that 90% of the saunas in the U.S. are bad and the other 10% are worse – that not a sauna in the U.S. has löyly. Sadly this is largely true and is referring to lack of proper fresh air ventilation (that results in suffocatingly high CO2 levels) and temps and benches that are too low. Once you’ve experienced proper sauna and löyly you’ll never want to go back! Fortunately U.S. saunas are starting to improve. 

Fun Stuff: The image above is by Giuseppe Acerbi who added himself as the clothed intruder holding the door open letting in cold air and letting out löyly.

 

Taking A Sauna

Sauna should be relaxing and enjoyable and can be solitary or social. It is NOT A CONTEST. It is not a regimen to be endured (except in Germany 🙂 ).

The enjoyment and health benefits of sauna come NOT from just sitting in the sauna but from the repetitive rounds of heating up and quickly cooling down.  You sit in the sauna for the experience of quickly cooling down in a cold lake, not just for the experience of sitting in the sauna. Many Finns will say that anything short of Hot Cold Hot Cold Hot Cold (3 rounds) is not sauna. This is the number one thing about sauna that Americans often miss. People in American gyms will get in the sauna for a bit and then take a warm shower. Or maybe do one cold plunge and then a warm shower. That’s not sauna according to Finns and Swedes.

The hot room and time in it is actually fairly minor. Other places and elements like a dip in the lake, a walk in the snow or a shower often comprise more sauna ritual time than the hot room. You should allow at least one and ideally two to four hours or more per sauna session so that you have time to enjoy multiple rounds in a relaxing way.

Sauna02

1) Warm Up The Sauna:

Our sauna, like most, needs to warm about 60-90 minutes prior to use. Ideally you want it to have been at your desired temp for at least 30 minutes so that the stones and walls have time to warm up. That said, I’d not let warm up time stand in the way of a sauna session.

2) Before Sauna:

Hygiene Before Heat – Shower with soap before first entering the sauna and rinse well. As my father-in-law would say “as far down as possible, as far up as possible …and possible”. This is especially important if you have suntan lotion on or have been in the hot tub. You (and your sauna mates!) want your skin and pores to be as clean as soap can make it. You’ll not need soap after this, though some people do choose to wash with soap after their final round.

It’s generally best to not enter a sauna wet so dry off well after your shower or swim

Drink water! It’s a good idea to wait a couple of hours after a meal but a light snack just before sauna is fine. Many Scandinavians will drink beer or Finnish Long Drink during their sauna sessions and roasting sausages on the rocks is a sometimes Finnish tradition but these are totally optional. Be very cautious of alcohol though as drunk + sauna heat is not a good thing. High CO2 that’s common in U.S. saunas makes the affects of alcohol much worse.

If you’re wearing a swim suit then it should be freshly clean and not have been in the hot tub or any other chlorine source.

3) In The Sauna (5-20 minutes):

Always sit on a towel, even if wearing a swimsuit.

Stay in as long as you are comfortable and leave when you want or when jumping through a hole in the ice sounds like a really great idea. There is no magic time to spend in a sauna and it may vary from day to day. Finns and Swedes consistently say 5-20 minutes and I’ve been told by a few people to not stay in longer than 15-20. While my preference is 10-12 minutes at 94-98°c, I sometimes like to stay in longer with cooler 75-80°c temps and sometimes 6 minutes at 112°c is my thing.

If you find that you are able to stay in longer than others that may just be that you’ve more fat and less muscle. Muscle transfers heat better than fat so someone with more muscle and less fat will heat up faster internally. And you thought being able to stay in a long time as macho 🙂 

In Scandinavia children are taught “in the sauna you must be as quiet as in church”. Quiet conversation is wonderful as is sitting in total silence. I love both.

Steam (the final element of Löyly) 

Start with the rocks farther away from you so that you’ll not be burned by rising steam. Don’t forget to ask others before ladling water on the stones.

You can’t add water too slowly but you can add it too fast and kill the rocks by cooling them off too much. On the other hand many Finns throw water on from a distance – a full ladle at a time.

Some natural eucalyptus oil may be added to the water bucket – typically about 1/2 to 1 dropper full. We use only pure natural oils,  I am not a fan of Rento and other scents with unnatural chemicals.

Ovi kii is a special epithet in Finnish for ‘CLOSE THE DOOR’. 

4) Out Cooling Down (5-60+ minutes):

80974589 2802266116491334 8805007935500451840 nGo jump in a lake! Really. No matter how cold it is. If it’s frozen we’ll cut a hole in the ice (and maybe plant a warning tree forest like my wife’s cousins Mikael and Maria do in Sweden).

My friend Kimmo (SaunaSherpa – check them out for a tour) says that Finns even have a special word for a hole in the ice to go swimming in – Avanto!  He adds “A slight push outside one’s comfort zone can be intimating – both in sauna, as well in avanto to get deeper sensations. For avanto first timers: enter steady, determined, stay calm, remember to breathe(!), Hardly anyone enjoys staying in the water but jumping in is worth it as bliss/euforia comes as a reward afterwards.” He also notes that some people never get fully use to it.

Feeling a bit of trepidation on your way to the lake, like this is going to be cold and I’m nuts for doing this, is a good thing. That means that you’re in for a treat. It’s indeed a bit intimidating but well worth it. 

Ideally you want to preserve as much sauna warmth in your body as possible when you jump in the lake. Taking a cue from firefighters, I always hang my swimsuit with strings up so I can get in it quickly (yeah, good idea to pull a swimsuit on before heading to the lake during the day in North America) and I’ll wrap my drying towel around my shoulders for the trip down. A terry cloth robe can work well also.

Second best is to go under a cool or cold shower. You ideally want to cool off quickly. Yep, it’s a bit shocking for 2 seconds and then you feel great. If you’re a loofa person this is ideal loofa! Two to five minutes under the shower and then walking outside to dry off and finish cooling down is a wonderful experience. 

If you shower after your first round you may smell some body odor. This is not sweat (sweat doesn’t smell) but bacteria in your skin that soap didn’t remove (and possibly bacteria from soap). You’ll not smell it after further rounds!

If it’s below about 40-50°f then you may find sandals to be a good thing. 

If it’s really cold out, like below about 10°f (-13°c)… drying off before going outside is a good idea. Be careful grabbing cold metal door handles with wet hands. And yes, that is ice in your wet hair.

Tumblr nin5d5DoVz1qgx7yxo1 640For me personally the ideal is lake water about 40°f (4°c) and air 20-40°f (-6°c – 4°c) but almost any weather will do.

Remember to take a few deep breaths of fresh air while you’re outside.

The first round is kind of an acclimatization round. Your body is relaxing and waking up at the same time, your pores are opening. In a well designed sauna with good ventilation the subsequent rounds will get better and better with each round.

When doing any kind of a cold plunge – sea, lake, shower, tub or bucket of water – a key is immediate total immersion from head to toe if possible.

5) Repeat:

Repeat as often as you want. Three rounds is kind of the average but two, five or whatever is OK.

Hydrate well with every round. Or not. Some people believe it’s best to hydrate well before your session and then not again until after all of your rounds. Personally I think it best to drink a bunch of water with each round.

Please dry off (all over) and wipe your feet well before re-entering the sauna to keep the benches clean for others.

6) After:

After your last round there is no need of soap. Just rinse off well under a cool shower and you’re as clean as you’ll ever be and much cleaner than after a typical soap shower. Using soap now will only clog your pores with chemicals. So rinse off, maybe stand or sit for a few minutes to finish cooling down and then get dressed. The feeling of totally clean and clear skin with no chemicals is quite wonderful.

Hydrate! Water or maybe a beer, Finnish long drink or glass of wine if you like.

This is a great time for a nap or a relaxing read. Most importantly, enjoy the blissful post-sauna feeling of having cleaned both your body and your mind.

Here’s an alternative routine from The Finnish Sauna Society:

Sauna Routine

And, given American sensibilities and judgementalism, perhaps no discussion with others about who wore what or not in the sauna.

 

It’s Not Sweat That You Smell

How do you get rid of the smell of sweat if you don’t use soap?

The smell that we associate with sweat is not sweat but bacteria. Bacteria thrive in warm places like folds of skin or skin sweating under a swimsuit unable to breath. When you sauna and then rinse off with cool water you get rid of bacteria that soap can’t.

This is why people can ride an upright Dutch bike in hot weather and not smell offensive. Firstly they don’t sweat as much as someone who’s leaning forward and wearing a helmet because they don’t get as hot – even if they’ve been riding the same speed. The big thing though is that they’ve not given bacteria a chance to grow. Leaning forward creates skin folds and reduced cooling both of which lead to bacteria gardens.

 

The First Time

Bundesarchiv Bild 183 1984 0322 016 Klein Bünzow Krippenkinder im Dampfbad

If this is your first time then take it easy, maybe sit on the lower bench if you want, and don’t push how long you stay in the sauna. Different people have different tolerances and the more you do it the more you’ll get to know your body and what you do and do not enjoy.

Maybe take it slow with jumping in a cold lake or under a cold shower. The shower’s easy – adjust the temp up some (about 10 o’clock on ours in the black tile shower or the one just outside on the patio). You can’t turn the temp up on the lake so I’ll take back what I said earlier about taking it slow – jump in and enjoy!

Sauna can take some getting use to. For many people it can take two or three sessions to learn to really enjoy it. People who’ve done it for decades often comment that it continues to get better and more enjoyable year after year.

 

Attire

SaunaWellness

In most countries, all except the US actually, everyone enjoys sauna together naked and nobody gives it a second thought. People sauna without clothes because it is more comfortable and more hygienic.

“In the sauna nudity is not the objective; it is simply a necessary condition for bathing properly”
– Bernhard Hillila, ‘The Sauna Is’

It is more comfortable in the sauna because swimsuits or towels wrapped around you keep your skin from breathing. This can also create uneven heat across your body.

Outside, exposed skin dries fairly quickly making it enjoyable to stand outside, swimsuits not so much. A wet swimsuit just isn’t comfortable, especially when it’s cold or breezy and doubly worse when dripping.

The time spent out of the sauna cooling down between rounds is as important as the time spent in the sauna and an uncomfortable cold wet swimsuit can make this time less enjoyable and shorten the amount of time you want to stay outside.

This also makes the routine of showering with soap before sauna and then rinsing well afterwards before getting dressed a lot easier and more pleasant.

There are two elements for hygiene. First is that having all of your skin exposed to air eliminates the bacteria growth that happens under swimsuits. One of the great things about sauna is that we get rid of all of this bacteria that has built up since our last sauna – and that’s good and healthy for our skin.

Cloth that is not freshly cleaned with unscented detergent can also transport unappealing scents and bacteria. This is why most saunas actually forbid any swimsuits, not just recommend not wearing them.

Scandinavians will also say that not having clothes on makes everyone more equal.

There are two sort of exceptions. Outside of family, Finland’s default is separate male & female rather than everyone together but mixed if all agree. “Finnish families including cousins aunts and uncles sauna naked together – as in everyone, from grandparents to tots as young as four months old.” You will find public tourist saunas in Finland that allow or even require swimsuits. In the U.S. and somewhat in the UK and Canada people often wear swimsuits, though that is slowly changing.

The default for our sauna is everyone wearing a swimsuit or towel. However, if all agree then it may be swimsuit optional. We can also setup separate male/female/family times if people want to give it a go in private.

The sunken sauna patio is fairly well protected (and will be better protected when new plants go in), especially the outdoor shower area. So there, the lower level of the house and of course in the sauna and changing/shower you are welcome to wear whatever you do or do not want. Beyond these a towel, shorts or swimsuit is a good idea. If it’s dark out then two presses on the ‘exterior’ button will turn down the outside lights and then a towel or robe is sufficient to get safely down to the lake. It’s easy to get comfortable walking around or laying in the sun in the sauna patio and then deciding to go for a dip in the lake so be thoughtful 🙂

If you do wear a swimsuit then one that is fast drying and won’t drip is preferable. For guys; briefs (‘speedo’) are best but a tight fitting square leg, square cut or boxer (three names for the same thing) is a bit more modest and works well to avoid uncomfortable cold drips. Jammers are probably third best with loose trunks or board shorts the worst.

For more on nudity, the differences between the U.S. and other countries, and the differences in natural, erotic and sexual nudity: Sauna Nudity

 

No Judgement Zone

Many people are comfortable in sauna without clothes, others are not. Some are comfortable around others who are nude, some are not. Some guys are not comfortable with other guys, particularly similar aged guys, seeing their wife nude, some aren’t bothered in the least.

NONE of these are right or wrong. Nobody should ever be judged in any way nor should anyone feel pressured to do anything they are uncomfortable with.

 

Jewelry & Electronics

It is generally best to remove jewelry before sauna. Some, depending on the material, can get hot and be uncomfortable. VHP’s and similar piercings that are somewhat protected do not generally seem to be a problem and other piercings depend on the material and location. The first time you sauna with a piercing it’s a good idea to keep your mind on it so that you can exit before it gets too hot.

 

Euro Zone

When people are using the sauna: the sauna, sauna patio and the lower level may be a Euro Zone – you may encounter naked people. Be forewarned if you’re easily offended. 🙂

 

Health Myths

There are a lot of myths about sauna in the U.S. compliments of deceptive marketing. This is particularly a problem with IR cabins (which are not actually sauna). 

Sauna does not cause weight loss. You’ll loose some water weight and that’s about it. And you should also drink enough water (or beer) to make up for that. 

As far as I know there is no real thing as sweating out toxins – not in a sauna or steam room or IR cabin or anything. Sweat is water and salt. And maybe a tiny bit of minerals. That’s it. Your liver and kidneys deal w/ mineral based toxins, they are simply ancillary in sweat. That said, sweating in a sauna does have numerous health benefits including  improved skin and getting rid of bacteria (and soap scum).

 

Health Benefits

First, sauna should be totally enjoyable. It should not be uncomfortable drudgery done purely for health benefits. If it’s not totally enjoyable then it is likely because the sauna does not have proper ventilation or proper heat so if you’re not enjoying it then find a real sauna. That said, there is a bit of acclimation necessary both for those new to sauna and to some extent with each sauna session. In a well-built sauna with proper ventilation and heat the first round is often a bit of a acclimation round and not quite as enjoyable as subsequent rounds that often get better and better with each round.

There are a number of studied and proven health benefits to sauna and no real negatives that we know of. Some of these benefits are believed to come from the cycling of hot/cold/hot/cold/hot/cold, others from sweating, and others from relaxing heat. (Some or many of these benefits may not be realized in American saunas with poor heat and poor ventilation.) Health benefits include:

– Improved cardiovascular system, significantly lowered risk of Congestive Heart Failure, and lower risk of blood pressure disorders, coronary heart disease, stroke and heart-related sudden death.

– Lowered risk of Ischemic Heart Disease / Coronary Artery Disease, Peripheral Artery Disease, Dyslipidemia, and Hypertension

– Decreased inflammation. 

– Reduced risk of Dementia, Alzheimers, Depression, Cognitive Decline and related issues.

– Improved skin.

– Stronger immune system.

– After a workout sauna can help muscles relax and begin the repair process.

– Tinnitus relief. I’ve had a ringing in my ears since an incident about 10 years ago and it was made considerably worse by a noise at the end of 2020. Both ENT’s that I saw about it recommended regular massages as the only known relief but both agreed that it wouldn’t hurt to try sauna. While regular sauna may not work as well as massage it does work noticeably well (and is a bit less expensive) especially when done about every other day. 

– Negative Ions – There is some evidence that negative ions, such as those in a traditional sauna from pouring water on the stones, may be beneficial. How beneficial still needs some research.

“Research by Dr Jari A. Laukkanen M.D., an internal medicine and cardiovascular diseases specialist, also observed that heart and cardiovascular disease mortality decreased as the number of minutes spent in the sauna increased: There were half as many deaths among those who spent more than 45 minutes a week in the sauna than among those who spent less than 15 minutes in the sauna.”

“Men who took four to seven saunas a week had a 66 percent smaller risk of a dementia diagnosis than those who sweated it out once a week.”

Kimmo sums it up well:  “Sauna session is comparable to a brisk walk exercise (heartbeat increases).” 

Some good discussions on the health benefits: Found My FitnessMayo Clinic: Cardiovascular and Other Health Benefits of Sauna Bathing: A Review of the Evidence , Dementia and Alzheimers Study, Health Secrets Of The Sauna.

 

What Europeans Wish Americans Knew.

Matt and Drew

Flatulance is normal. 

Erections and reverse (including the full retreat) are normal, especially in response to heat/cold of sauna.

Talking quietly is OK.

Sitting with other people in total silence is OK. As is healthy debate and discussion.

Yes, people come in all shapes and sizes with all kinds of attachments and decorations and that too is normal.

 

Variations On A Theme

Sweden – Sauna is called ‘bastu’ and Swedes have a reputation for drinking liquor in the sauna instead of the beer that Finns enjoy.

Germany – Germans are well known for three things with sauna; a strong smell of aromatherapy, obedience to sand clocks for how long to stay in and a sauna master who is the only one allowed to throw water on the stones.

Many countries can be very strict about no clothes in saunas. Finns will be polite while eyeing the offender, Swedes will quietly say something while Germans and others will simply forbid entry or point and yell ‘Aus!’.

 

Similar Or Not So Similar Experiences

Outside of the U.S. the word sauna is used only in reference to… sauna – a room heated to high temperatures by a large mass of stones. It is not used for Infrared Cabins or Turkish Baths or snake oil tents.

Russian Banya – Very similar to sauna with sometimes slightly lower temps (90°c ± 10°c / 194°f ± 18°f ) but higher humidity (30-50% RH). Banya’s may have a pot of water over the rocks that constantly drips water on to the stones to maintain the humidity. Banya also includes Parenie thermal massage using a venik of birch, oak or eucalyptus as an essential element while using a venik is optional and less formal with sauna.

Turkish Bath / Steam Room – Lower temperature (40°c ± 5°c / 105°f ± 9°f ) and very high humidity of 90-100%. Rather than the wood walls of a Sauna or Banya the walls of a Turkish Bath are typically tile or stone and the rooms are likely to be larger. Turkish Baths are less tranquil and intimate than Sauna. Turkish Baths do have a number of health benefits, some overlapping with Sauna and Banya. There is higher risk of bacterial transmission in a Turkish Bath so hygiene of bathers and the facility is critical.

Hammam – Similar to Turkish Bath but a more formal proscribed ritual done in a larger multi-room facility.

Sweat Lodge – These are common among many Indigenous Americans and are somewhat similar to a Finnish Smoke Sauna. Sweat Lodges are a spiritual ritual for Indigenous Americans.

IMG 1773 e1526321038380Infrared Cabin – This is not sauna despite the misappropriation of the name in the U.S. and is a very different experience than sauna despite what marketing people say. Most people who have experienced both have a preference, often strong, for sauna though some do prefer IR. There are two flavors of IR; Far Infrared or FIR and Near Infrared or NIR. Both include potential health benefits though the lists of benefits differ for NIR, FIR and Sauna. As of yet none of the benefits of IR have been proven in formal studies as have the benefits of sauna though this may come with time. There are some health concerns with IR such as EMF exposure though similar to the benefits these have not yet been studied enough to know if they are real or imagined.

Ozone Cabin – Similar to IR Cabins these are not saunas in any way except the misappropriation of the name.

 

 

References:

Web sites:

The Finnish Sauna Basics

https://www.gq.com/story/in-search-of-the-perfect-sauna

https://www.womenshealthmag.com/health/a26446700/sauna-vs-steam-room-benefits/

 

And Good Books:

Anyone and everyone who is building or buying a sauna should read Lassi Liikkanen’s ‘Secrets Of Finnish Sauna Design’. I’ve read over 20 books on sauna. This is the most accurate and most informative book available.

Sauna Magic

Hodgson Rd – Anatomy Of A Dangerous Road Design

 

Hodgson Rd CROW Standard ppf12 9

Ramsey County, in conjunction with the cities of Shoreview and Vadnais Heights are redoing Hodgson Road between Gramsie and Hiway 96.

Project Website: https://www.ramseycounty.us/residents/roads-transportation/future-road-projects/future-road-construction-projects/hodgson-road-reconstruction

Stated Purposes are:

  • Improve pedestrian and bike access
  • Replace the aging pavement
  • Improve stormwater management

All well and good. And the current proposed design (July 2021) is indeed an improvement over the current roadway for people walking and riding bicycles. However, that’s like someone saying that they’re only going to beat us up 4 times this year instead of 5.

This design is an improvement but is still far more dangerous and less useable than what other countries have been building as standard for decades.

Why can’t Ramsey County traffic engineers build something as good and safe as others?

Some additional information on why European roads are so much safer designed than U.S.

  • https://streets.mn/2019/07/08/designing-a-road-different-cultural-perspectives/ 
  • https://bicycledutch.wordpress.com
  • http://www.modacitylife.com
  • https://streets.mn/2014/03/25/why-are-we-letting-drivers-kill-our-children/
  • https://streets.mn/2014/08/27/cycleway-fundamentals-safety-momentum-comfort/

Two versions of this post follow; a relatively brief Cliffs Notes version and a longer Full Version with more (and hopefully better) details.

Line 10ax

Cliffs Notes Version

The U.S. has the most dangerous road system of all developed countries. Comparing to The Netherlands for example; someone in the U.S. is over 3x as likely to be killed while in a car, 11x as likely to be killed while riding a bicycle and 17x as likely to be killed while walking.

Image005 2

We also have nearly the lowest life expectancy (32nd of 34) and the highest rates of preventible chronic diseases. Across developed countries the highest correlation factor for health is the amount that people bicycle for local transportation – the more the healthier.

Children who walk or bicycle to school perform better and are less stressed than those who come by bus or car. They are also overall healthier, happier and better socially adjusted. This is why so many countries have begun prioritizing children being able to safely bicycle to school. The Netherlands has now eliminated school buses and other countries are following close behind.

This design on Hodgson is an improvement over the current roadway but is still a significantly less safe design than it would be in other developed countries. It does not make it safe or inviting for children to bicycle to school nor for the majority of people to bicycle to the grocery or dinner. It is what other countries were doing 20-40 years ago and no longer do because of safety.

The issues include:

1a – Bi-Directional Trail / Bikeway – Dangerous

This design forces bicycle riders to ride contra-flow to traffic so that they are approaching junctions, side roads and driveways from the opposite direction of motor traffic which often results in drivers not seeing them. A bi-directional bikeway such as this is largely illegal in most other developed countries due to the high risk it creates.

1b – Bi-Directional Trail / Bikeway – Congestion

This is the same basic design as Hodgson Rd north of Hiway 96 except the MUT in this plan is narrower, only 8’ wide versus the 10’ wide trail north of 96.

There are already congestion problems on the trail north of 96 due to it being bi-directional and having people bicycling and walking in the same space. Some people have stopped using it because of the congestion.

This area south of 96 has nearly 5x the population density who would likely want to use it.

Narrower trail, wider road with higher speeds, more people trying to walk and bicycle… What could go wrong?

2a – Long Crossing Distances

Traffic engineers in safer countries try to keep unsignalized crossing distances to no more than 8-10’ (one lane at a time) for busier and faster roads such as Edgerton and no more than 17-19’ (two lanes) for less busy roads. Any crossing distance greater than 19’ generally requires stop lights at each crossing.

Even with stop lights crossings are usually limited to 88’ or less.

This plan includes unsignalized crossings of over 100’ or 5-11x what would be allowed elsewhere. NONE of the crossings in this plan would be considered safe or legal in other developed countries.

OSHA will not allow factory workers or airport employees to encounter something nearly as dangerous as proposed here yet Ramsey County thinks that it’s OK for a mom and child? Or for children alone?

 

2b – Crossings Too Close To Junctions

CROW calls for crossings to generally be placed about one car length (typically 14’) from the closest motor vehicle lane. Benefits include shorter crossing distance, drivers are no longer dealing with other issues of the junction and can focus on only the crossing, the crossing and people about to cross are in the drivers direct field of view rather than far off to one side, provides a safe place for drivers to wait for people crossing while being out of the way of through traffic, reduces congestion for people walking and bicycling and creates a safe waiting zone.

 

2c – Sharks Teeth

Sharks Teeth clearly communicate to drivers (and people walking, bicycling or with disabilities) that they DO NOT have right-of-way, should proceed with extra caution and must yield to crossing or conflicting traffic. This also eliminates ambiguity of who has right-of-way. The use of Sharks Teeth is critical to safe crossings and also allows traffic engineers to safely give motor traffic the right-of-way when appropriate.

 

3 – No Refuge Islands

Other safer countries make liberal use of refuge islands to make crossings shorter and safer and to cause drivers to pay closer attention at crossings. Every crossing of Hodgson would either include signals or refuge islands to limit crossing distances to 9’.

4a – Unmarked Crossings

I believe the U.S. is the only developed country that allows unmarked crossings.

Every road junction, every side street entrance in Ramsey County is a legal crossing. But who knows? Who thinks about that when they’re going 45-55 MPH up Hodgson? How many cars on Hodgson stop for someone entering one of these invisible crossings?

 

4b – Bikeway & Walkway Color, Material and Grade

A significant safety problem on Hodgson Rd north of Hiway 96, and this is a problem throughout Ramsey County, is that drivers are often unaware of the presence of a walkway or bikeway. There is little or nothing to indicate this to them. The result is dangerous conflicts when a bicycle rider suddenly appears in front of them. Combined with drivers having been encouraged to not stop and look when making right (and often left) turns on to Hodgson this is a quite dangerous scenario.

Insuring that drivers know very clearly when they are crossing a bikeway or walkway has proven critical to fewer deaths and safer streets elsewhere and has been standard for about 20-40 years. A key way that they do this is that bikeways and walkways are consistent in color, material and often grade through all driveway and minor street crossings.

 

5 – No Walkway On Each Side

Many countries will no longer allow multi-use trails in built-up areas. The speed differences between people walking (3 MPH avg) and bicycling (13 MPH avg) are too great when it gets congested. Along any road with a speed limit of greater than 18 MPH they will build a minimum of a 4’ walkway + 10” buffer + 6.5’ bikeway + 20-60” buffer (60” for a 45 MPH roadway like Hodgson) on each side.

The disparities in speed, torque and mass will become greater with MN having recently legalized 20 MPH throttle controlled mopeds and 28 MPH e-bikes for trails such as this.

6 – 8’ Trail Width

8’ is much too narrow for both bi-directional traffic and shared use by multiple modes (foot, bicycle, wheelchair, mobility scooter, skates, etc.). And it gets worse when bushes are not pruned back.

7 – Wide Radius Corners

Road designs elsewhere use tighter radii in corners. This causes drivers to pay closer attention when turning.

8 – Lane Widths & Pavement Width

Engineers elsewhere have long known that narrower motor vehicle lanes result in safer roads. This because drivers pay better attention on narrow lanes and pay less attention in wider lanes.

This same holds true for overall pavement width. The more contiguous pavement (e.g., continuous pavement between curbs or grass) the less drivers pay attention because they feel like they have a lot of room for error – swerving over a painted line isn’t an issue for them.

The width of contiguous pavement also significantly increases noise which impacts those who live along Hodgson as well as people walking or bicycling.

While this design has 42’ of contiguous pavement at it’s narrowest, in safer countries this would be about 19’ curb to curb. Not only would it be safer but also much quieter for people who live along this road or who are walking or bicycling.

Narrower lanes also allow for more grass, trees and other vegetation.

9 – Center Left Turn Lane

The purpose for this lane is to reduce delay experienced by drivers waiting on other drivers to make left turns. Sounds good.

Engineers in safer countries know this very differently – these delays, typically 2-5 seconds, serve some critical purposes.

  • Increase Driver Attention. 
  • Increase Access Safety for people entering from driveways. 
  • Increase Crossing Safety.
  • Reduce Unnecessary Traffic Volume and Driver Aggression. 

This lane design increases overall contiguous pavement width which also reduces driver attention, may increase speeds and will increase noise. Engineers in safer countries try to use as little pavement as possible for better driver attention and less noise.

Perhaps the bigger issue though is that adding this center turn lane reduces bicycling and walking facilities. Ramsey County engineers have stated that they cannot build a wider MUT nor a walkway on each side nor a proper bikeway + walkway on each side BECAUSE of the 12’ used by the addition of the center turn lane.

This lane also results in the motor travel lanes being 6’ closer to homes on either side.

A Swedish engineer: “You make the motor vehicle lanes more dangerous, increase noise, decrease walking and bicycling facilities and decrease vegetation – Why would you do this?”

Junctions

There are a number of elements of junctions (roundabouts, intersections, side road entrances and sometimes high traffic driveway entrances) in Europe that make them safer than those in the U.S.

For more: 

 

 

Roundabout

Roundabouts are much safer for people in cars than intersections and they can be safer for people walking and bicycling. Well designed roundabouts are a good thing.

The traffic volumes, approach speeds and design speeds for this roundabout are however quite dangerous for people walking or bicycling to be forced to use surface crossings. Crossing will be quite difficult, time consuming and dangerous during morning and evening rush and somewhat so at other times.

Other countries would generally include underpasses for people walking and bicycling through a roundabout such as this one.

 

 

 

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Full Version

Why This Is Important?

The U.S. currently has the most dangerous road system of all developed countries.

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Walking is more difficult to measure but is similar or worse with some estimates that someone in the U.S., for each mile they walk, is about 17 times as likely to be killed by a driver as someone in Europe on average and 23 times more likely than someone in The Netherlands (the safest country for both walking and bicycling).

In just 2019 alone Minnesota drivers killed 364 people and seriously injured 1,520. Many of those seriously injured are in wheelchairs for the rest of their lives or are missing arms, legs or fingers. If our roads were designed as safe as The Netherlands then 283 of those dead people (sons, daughters, mothers, fathers, friends…) would still be alive and healthy today and fewer than 100 people would have severe injuries.

LMJSK

Sadly, deaths on our roads have continued to rise since that 2014 tweet and drivers now kill over 37,000 people each year.

Children who walk or bicycle to school perform better and are less stressed than those who come by car or bus. They have a better attention span and are about a half year ahead of others. They are also healthier, happier and better behaved. This is a key reason why European and other countries are prioritizing making it so that ALL children can safely bicycle to school. The charge is often led by wealthier parents who recognize the benefits and want them for their children.

Another is cost. Moundsview and White Bear spend about 9% of their budget on transporting children to school. We are spending 9% of our school system budget to make our children less healthy and less academically successful. What if that 9%, $13m/yr for Moundsview, was instead spent on …teaching (or not raising another levy)?

Some of the highest concentrations of air pollution are around schools. This compliments of cars and buses lined up spewing exhaust while waiting to drop off or pick up students. There is a high correlation between air quality and academic performance and this carries over in to future career options.

The Netherlands no longer has any school buses. 62% of children now bicycle to school, 29% walk and 8% come by car. Other countries in Europe and Asia have this same goal and are close behind. This has also resulted in childhood ADHD nearly disappearing in The Netherlands, Sweden, Denmark and Finland. 

The U.S. is currently ranked 24th of 27 nations for academic performance and our worst in the developed world student health is a key factor.

We have the least healthy overall population of developed countries and among the lowest life expectancy. Interestingly, there is a very high correlation between bicycling for transportation and health – countries with higher rates of transportation bicycling have a healthier population and countries with low levels have the poorest health. We are last. U.S. traffic engineers make bicycling dangerous and unappealing so people understandably won’t do it and our health suffers.

We are supposed to be a great nation. Why can’t our engineers design a road system as safe and well functioning as engineers elsewhere? Why is a child riding a bicycle in the U.S. 11x as likely to be killed on roads designed by U.S. traffic engineers as those designed by EU engineers? Why must our children endure lengthy bus rides while children elsewhere freely and safely bicycle to school?

The Design

The current roadway includes two 12’ travel lanes in 40’ of pavement.

The new design adds a center turn lane, 2’ of additional contiguous pavement, a walkway and a multi-use trail.

Hodgson Road Typical Layout web 5 19 2020

The Problems

Frequently in engineering, attempts at improvement involve a lot of theory and experimentation – going where no human has gone before. Here it is very different. Others have led the way for us. There is no need for theory or experimentation. We need only look to how others have achieved much safer roads and many fewer people killed and do what they’ve done.

There are reasons why other countries have so many fewer people killed on their roads than we do and why so many are killed on our roads. Most of these reasons relate to road design.

The gold standard for safe design, the design guide that produces the safest roadways, particularly for the most vulnerable; people walking, bicycling or with disabilities, are the CROW manuals that are the foundation for safer road design used in The Netherlands and elsewhere.

In a quick review there are at least 33 elements of this design for Hodgson that violate basic CROW design principles and make this plan unsafe. It’s important to note also that engineers in Europe consider the CROW standards as minimums for safety and often design roads to a stricter/higher safety standard.

Safer does not mean appreciably slower travel times for drivers. Safer is primarily about driver attention and protection through separation of the most vulnerable. 

 

Concrete Enforces Better Than Paint Or Paper

U.S. Traffic Engineers design roads for safety to be enforced by law enforcement. And this might work if we had a cop on every corner insuring that drivers, bicycle riders, people with disabilities and people walking all obeyed every law and always acted safely. If cops were always present to insure that people didn’t drive too fast, were always paying attention to the road, looked before crossing a bikeway or entering a junction.

Labore Rd in Little Canada is signed for 30 MPH – it’s a residential street. But it is designed for 70 MPH with 11’ wide lanes in 32’ of pavement. Not surprisingly many people drive 50-60 MPH on Labore.

EU Engineers design roads to self-enforce safety – no cops necessary. Narrower lanes and pavement, curbed refuge islands, chicanes, tighter radius corners and other elements that CAUSE drivers to pay close attention and drive with caution.

Following are a few of the key issues that are addressable under current Minnesota guidelines. There are several elements that are key to safe design that are not allowed by Minnesota guidelines and are not included.

 

1a – Bi-Directional Trail / Bikeway – Dangerous

Bi-directional trails/bikeways are now largely illegal in many or most developed countries because of the danger they pose for people traveling in a contra-flow (against traffic) direction.

Bi-directional are allowed only where there are very few (about 1-3 per mile) side road, parking lot or driveway entrances. When they are built they are typically 10’ wide and very rarely 8’. If outside of a built-up area and so also allowing pedestrians they will be 12’ wide. Any crossings of side roads or driveways will be very clearly marked, often the bikeway will be raised on a speed table, and with clear sightlines (no shrubs or other obstructions) so that drivers can easily see bicycle riders approaching.

The reason they are not allowed along a road like Hodgson is that when a driver approaches a roadway from a side road or driveway they instinctively look to their left – for approaching cars that are a threat …to them. They often do not look to their right for people walking or riding a bicycle and crossing in front of them.

This is particularly dangerous in the U.S. as we still allow right-on-red (legally, only after stopping and looking in BOTH directions) which other countries do not allow and drivers in the U.S. frequently also do not stop before turning right at stop signs or when exiting parking lots.

Even when drivers do look to their right, when making a left turn for example, they often only look to the far side traffic lane, to who is a threat to them, not to the near side bikeway/walkway.

Other developed countries now generally require that any road with speeds of greater than 18 MPH have a bikeway and walkway on EACH side of the roadway so that people walking and bicycling will be approaching side roads and driveways from the same direction as motor traffic and so greatly increasing the likelihood that drivers will see them.

 

1b – Bi-Directional Trail / Bikeway – Congestion

This is the same basic design as Hodgson Rd north of Hiway 96 with a walkway on one side and a multi-use trail (MUT) on the other. One difference is that the MUT in this plan is narrower, only 8’ wide, compared to the 10’ wide trail north of 96.

The current MUT north of Hiway 96 can get quite congested at times. There are three primary causes of this congestion; 1) bi-directional (or two-way) trails result in greater congestion because of reduced passing opportunities, 2) a MUT creates greater congestion because of the extreme differences in speed between people walking at 3 MPH and bicycling at 12 MPH, and 3) simple capacity – squeezing all bicycle riders on to this one side.

Perhaps worse is that some people will no longer bicycle or walk on the MUT north of 96 because of the congestion (and poor maintenance that’s resulted in bone jarring bumps).

A MUT on each side would be able to handle about 3-4x as many people as the current plan mostly because single direction travel is much more efficient.

And importantly, this area south of 96 has approx 5x as many people living in close proximity and who are likely to walk and bicycle along here when complete. So this area needs greater walking and bicycling capacity, not less.

So, narrower MUT/Bikeway, one more traffic lane and 5x as many people… What could go wrong?

2a – Long Crossing Distances

Traffic engineers in safer countries try to keep unsignalized crossing distances to no more than 8-10’ (one lane) and a single direction of motor traffic for busier roads such as Edgerton and no more than 17-19’ (two lanes) for less busy side roads. Any crossing distance greater than 19’ generally requires stop lights at each crossing. Ramsey County are proposing unsignalized crossings of over 100’.

There are several reasons that engineers elsewhere do this. One is time – it takes twice as long to cross 40’ as 20’ and so the person crossing is at risk for twice as long. Longer crossing distances also require a much larger gap in traffic and increase the likelihood of tripping both because of distance and because longer crossing encourage or require people to run rather than walk.

Perhaps most important though is that keeping crossing distances short also narrows the roadway. It signals to drivers ‘hey, something’s going on here so be careful’. It often also narrows the width between cement curbs which causes drivers to pay much closer attention lest they damage their tires or rims on the curb. And while paying attention to not damaging their tires they also see people walking and riding bicycles.

This design for Hodgson includes unsignalized crossings of Edgerton of over 100’ – ten times the distance most other countries consider safe or would allow. Some EU engineers said that they’d limit crossing Edgerton to 8.5-9’ curb to curb without a signal given the speeds and traffic volume. Or 9’ curb to curb and 11’ red to red by which she meant that there will be an 11’ gap from red path to red path so that people walking and bicycling know where it is safe to be since vehicle mirrors can protrude past the curb.

Crossings of Bridge Street, Snail Lake and others are often 50’ or greater – over twice the distance engineers in other countries would allow for such side street crossings.

Others achieve shorter and safer crossing distances with narrower travel lanes, not having crossings in the apex of a radius (e.g., they place them farther from the junction) and by including refuge islands.

Even at signalized junctions they try to keep crossing distances as short as possible, for safety, and because this reduces the time people are in a crossing and so increases the time that cars can drive through.

Also, mid-block crossings can be safer than at-junction crossings. For people crossing the threat is from one direction only versus from 3 directions at a junction. For drivers they need only watch for someone crossing vs having to simultaneously deal with numerous other issues at a junction. This is another reason why crossings at junctions are placed at least one car length or 14’ from the junction (vs directly next to the junction in the U.S.). 

OSHA will not allow factory workers or airport employees to encounter something nearly as dangerous as proposed here yet Ramsey County thinks that it’s OK for a mom and child? Or for children alone?

 

2b – Crossings Too Close To Junctions

CROW calls for crossings to be placed about one car length (typically 14’) from the closest motor vehicle through traffic lane. Benefits include:

  • Shorter crossing distance
  • Drivers approaching the junction can safely see people in the crossing or about to cross because they are more directly in their field of view, stop for them, and then proceed to the junction. With Ramsey County’s design a driver is having to focus on numerous threats at the same time and most drivers are more focused on cars in the junction that are a threat to them rather than people in a crossing who are not a threat to them.
  • More so for drivers exiting the junction.
  • Provides a safe waiting space for drivers entering a junction. They deal with the crossing and THEN move forward and wait for a safe gap in motor traffic.
  • Provides a safe waiting space for drivers exiting the junction. They deal with the junction and can then wait safely out of the way of through traffic.
  • Provides safe waiting spaces for people walking and bicycling.
  • Eliminates the congest that Ramsey County’s design causes of people from multiple directions trying to share a single small space.

More: https://bicycledutch.wordpress.com/2014/02/23/junction-design-in-the-netherlands/

 

2c – Sharks Teeth

Liberal use of Sharks Teeth clearly communicate to drivers, people walking, bicycling or with disabilities who has right-of-way. They eliminate ambiguity. If the sharp end of the teeth are pointing at you then you do not have right-of-way, should proceed with extra caution and must yield to crossing or conflicting traffic. 

SharksTeeth

This also allows traffic engineers to safely give motor traffic the right-of-way when appropriate (as we’ll see in the next section).

 

3 – No Refuge Islands

Outside of the U.S. it is common to see refuge safety islands between motor lanes for people walking and bicycling. These Refuge Islands serve three critical safety purposes; 1) they shorten the crossing distance, 2) allow people to cross a single direction of motor traffic at a time, and 3) increase driver attention.

Crossing01

At Hodgson Rd and Cunningham Ln (above) one day recently I watched a mom and her child trying to cross Hodgson. It took 13 minutes before there was a break in traffic that allowed them to make the 73’ unmarked unprotected crossing. And they were not being extra cautious. Because of the bad road design they had to wait until they could make the entire 73’ trek at once. Any time there was a small break in traffic from one direction there’d be cars coming in the other. When they did cross they had to run which increases the likelihood of tripping, especially for children.

One point here is that this is a legal crossing. Cars in both directions are legally required to stop when someone is waiting to cross. But who knows that? I have never seen that happen though Ramsey County traffic engineers tell me that cars do stop.

As someone on Nextdoor pointed out, Ramsey County traffic engineers are forcing people, including children, to play Frogger with real cars going 50-60 MPH. That’s irresponsible. OSHA wouldn’t allow employees on a job site to encounter something as dangerous as Ramsey County engineers expect children to deal with.

Here is a crossing (below) built to safer CROW standards. Someone crossing here need only cross about 10’ and one direction of <30 MPH traffic at a time. This crossing is in a Caution Zone – just before this is a speed bump with painted serrated bars that warns drivers to be extra cautious. Note too that bicycle riders (and people walking) have ‘sharks teeth’ which means that they must yield to motor traffic. Because they need only cross about 10’ and one direction at a time and there are relatively few people crossing here this is still safe and allows motor traffic to proceed cautiously without stopping.

If they begin getting complaints of it taking too long to cross then they will narrow the crossing, install curbs on the outside and change priority so that cars must yield to people in the crossing.

Crossing04

The crossing above is in a caution zone as indicated by the serrated bars and speed bump (below).

Crossing04a

You can see it coming from the other direction at about 1:40 in this video:

With a CROW design this mom and daughter would have first made an 8.5’ crossing of one lane of traffic in a marked and possibly raised/tabled crossing (with drivers paying close attention so that they don’t damage their tires). Then waited on a large protected refuge. Then made a second 8.5’ crossing. With a refuge island and slightly narrower lanes it would have taken them less than 30 seconds, walking instead of running, much safer and much less stress inducing.

Even just making the first crossing of northbound traffic 10’ to an island and then 20’ or even 30′ across the southbound lanes would be significantly safer simply by allowing them to cross one direction of traffic at a time and reducing the crossing distances by more than half. It would still not be considered safe or legal elsewhere but would be a huge improvement for us in Ramsey County.

Refuge Islands work well when a crossing distance would otherwise be greater than 19’ but traffic patterns don’t warrant a signal system or on two-lane roads when speeds are high such as Hodgson.

One engineer told me that they will never allow you to cross more than one narrow lane at a time without a signal on a road with 45 MPH traffic such as Hodgson – EVERY crossing of Hodgson would have either a refuge island, signal lights or both.

Ramsey County engineers say over 100’ for a mom and child dodging 45 MPH traffic is acceptable.

Engineers elsewhere also include refuge islands for many signalized junctions. Some countries now require them for any crossing greater than 88’ and engineers will also use them for crossings shorter than 88’ as it is safer and allows them to shorten the overall cycle times of the junction making the junction more efficient for all users.

Some key design elements of a refuge island include; 1) The refuge being at least 10’ wide to accommodate a bakfiets (or in the U.S. a bicycle with a child trailer), 2) Narrow curb to curb distances for travel lanes on each side to increase driver attention and 3) Clear sightlines for drivers and people crossing to see each other.

4a – Unmarked Crossings

I believe the U.S. is the only developed country that allows unmarked crossings.

Every road junction in Ramsey County is a legal crossing. But who knows? Who thinks about that when they’re going 45-55 MPH up Hodgson?

Interestingly this is something that has generated the most comments from Dutch engineers even though not the most dangerous fault with this plan. And more interesting is that The Netherlands (and increasingly other countries) do not have laws against J-Walking – people can legally cross any street anywhere anytime.

 

4b – Bikeway & Walkway Color, Material and Grade

A significant safety problem on Hodgson Rd north of Hiway 96, and this is a problem throughout Ramsey County, is that drivers are often unaware of the presence of a walkway or bikeway. There is little or nothing to indicate this to them. The result is dangerous conflicts when a bicycle rider suddenly appears in front of them. Combined with drivers having been encouraged to not stop and look when making right (and often left) turns on to Hodgson this is a quite dangerous scenario.

Insuring that drivers know very clearly when they are crossing a bikeway or walkway has proven critical to fewer deaths and safer streets elsewhere and has been standard for about 20-40 years. A key way that they do this is that bikeways and walkways are consistent in color, material and often grade through all driveway and minor street crossings. Bikeways elsewhere are often a muted red color that both blends in well with natural surroundings and alerts drivers to the presence of the bikeway. Anytime a driver sees this color they know that it is a bikeway and that there are likely to be bicycle riders or people with disabilities.

 

Crossing

5 – No Walkway

Many countries will no longer allow multi-use trails in built-up areas. The speed differences between people walking (3 MPH avg) and bicycling (13 MPH avg) are too great. Along any road with a speed limit of greater than 18 MPH they will build a minimum of a 4’ walkway and 6.5’ bikeway on each side.

The disparities between people walking and bicycling are considerably worse when e-bikes are included as these have higher average speeds, greater torque and greater weight. A key element of road safety is separation by speed and mass which is grossly violated by forcing pedestrians and e-bikes to share space.

There is also an issue that Minnesota now (as of August 2021) allows much more powerful e-bikes on MUT’s like this one along Hodgson. And these new laws allow significantly more power on trails with pedestrians than Europe allows on bikeways with no pedestrians. Minnesota’s new law allows throttle-controlled e-bikes (effectively electric motorcycles) of speeds up to 20 MPH and pedal-assist e-bikes that provide power up to 28 MPH.

(On the pseudo good news front they now limit e-bikes to 750w (watts) rather than 1000w. However, consider that the average bicycle rider going 13 MPH is using about 70w so a 750w e-bike is still over 10x more powerful than an average bicycle rider.)

Europe has 3 classifications of e-bikes/mopeds; E-bikes are pedal-assist only and assist must taper to 0 at or below 15 MPH. E-bike riders may go faster than 15 MPH but only without electric assist. Any electric assist above 15 MPH makes it a Heavy Moped. Light Mopeds allow throttles but speeds are limited to 15 MPH, the moped must have a license plate (blue) and the rider must be licensed and insured. Heavy Mopeds allow throttles and speeds up to 28 MPH, must have a license plate (yellow) and the rider must be licensed, insured and wear a helmet.

In built-up areas (such as this section of Hodgson) Europe generally only allows e-bikes (pedal-assist only and that tapers to 0 at 15 MPH or lower). And this is for bikeways with no pedestrians.

Light Mopeds are allowed on some bikeways and not on others though cities are increasingly forbidding them due to their higher rate of crashes and more severe injuries. Heavy Mopeds are allowed on some rural bikeways.

Something that’s very noticeable in Europe is that the more power of their own that a rider provides the safer and more respectful they are of others. And conversely the less power they provide and the more provided by a motor the less safe and respectful of others the riders are. Because of this and higher rates of crashes and more severe injuries with e-bikes the rules are being reviewed.

6 – 8’ Trail Width

The widely recognized standard width across all developed countries for a one-way protected bikeway is a minimum of 6.5’ or 2m. For two-way bicycle traffic this minimum increases to 8’ or 3m. These are both assuming a 10” buffer to the roadway curb (or 20” buffer if roadway speeds exceed 25 MPH and 60” if 45 or greater) as well as a 10” buffer to the adjacent walkway.

Here standards diverge. Guidelines in many countries, including the U.S. and Minnesota say that a mixed use trail such as this must then be a minimum of 10’ to account for the differing speeds and mass of bicycle riders and pedestrians.

An increasing number of countries however no longer allow multi-use trails at all in built up areas. They now require a separate protected bikeway and walkway on each side with a minimum bikeway of 6.5’ and a minimum walkway of 4’ with at least 10” of buffer between them. This requires only about 1’ additional space vs a 10’ MUT but results in a much safer and less stressful design.

Importantly, all of these minimums are frequently exceeded as engineers find them to be too narrow in practice. Whenever possible they design wider bikeways and walkways. Several engineers have told me that they rarely or never design a bikeway of less than 8’ partially because even one-way bikeways will have some people going in the opposite direction for short bits to reach their destination.

For comparison the MUT north of 96 is 10’ wide and even with about 1/5 the population density results in considerable congestion at times. This MUT also has problems of bushes not being cut back from the path resulting in a useable width of sometimes less than 4′ (other countries generally keep brush about 2’ back from the path so that users may always safely use the entire width of the path).

7 – Wide Radius Corners

Road designs elsewhere use tighter radii in corners. This forces drivers to pay closer attention and to slow down slightly when turning.

8 – Lane Widths & Pavement Width

Engineers elsewhere have long known that narrower motor vehicle lanes result in safer roads. This because drivers pay better attention on narrow lanes and pay less attention when in wider lanes.

This same holds true for overall pavement width. The more contiguous pavement (e.g., pavement between curbs or grass) the less drivers pay attention because they feel like they have a lot of room for error.

The width of contiguous pavement also increases noise since it increases the amount of noise reflected rather than absorbed.

While this design has 42’ of contiguous pavement at it’s narrowest, in safer countries this would be about 19’ curb to curb. Not only would it be safer but also much quieter for people who live along this road or who are walking or bicycling.

Narrower lanes also allow for more grass, trees and other vegetation.

9 – Center Left Turn Lane

The purpose for this extra lane is to reduce delay experienced by drivers waiting on other drivers to make left turns. Sounds good.

Engineers in safer countries know this very differently – these delays, typically 2-5 seconds, serve some critical purposes.

  • Driver Attention. They reduce driver expectation of this being a free flowing high speed road, increase driver expectations of needing to slow or stop and so increase driver attention. Making this more free flowing with the addition of a continuous center turn lane increases driver expectation of non-blocking freeway like driving, decreases driver attention and increases driver impatience and aggression. And for Engineers elsewhere this is a road-system-wide issue. They do not want drivers to develop an expectation of surface streets (vs divided highways) being continuous flow and freeway like. They want drivers to distinguish in their mind between a high speed divided highway and a lower speed roadway that requires much greater care.  
  • Access Safety. They create gaps in traffic that allow others to more safely enter the flow of traffic. Without these gaps being created the traffic flow becomes high speed and constant which makes it more difficult (sometimes nearly impossible) and much more dangerous for people entering from side streets or driveways.
  • Crossing Safety. They create gaps for people crossing. Similar to above, without these gaps it can be more difficult and dangerous to cross. In my example above with the mom and daughter trying to cross – they were only able to cross when they did because of such a gap created by a turning car.
  • Traffic Volume and Driver Aggression. They encourage through traffic to use more appropriate alternate routes. If Hodgson is known as a more free flowing arterial road rather than a local collector type road then more people will choose it as a through road. There are two problems with this. First is simply the increased volume of traffic. Second is that these are drivers who are mid-commute and who live farther away rather than local people at the beginning or nearing the end of their commute. The latter are likely to be less aggressive and more patient.

This lane design increases overall contiguous pavement width which also reduces driver attention, increases speeds and increases noise. Engineers in safer countries try to use as little pavement as possible for better driver attention and less noise.

Engineers elsewhere will use left turn lanes to reduce delay but only where critically necessary. They will also have specific lanes for specific turns rather than a shared lane, they usually also introduce a forced chicane to slow drivers down and they have a higher threshold for when they’d include them. The volume of traffic on Hodgson does not appear meet any of those thresholds.

Additional lanes also make crossings longer and more dangerous for people walking or riding bicycles. For a traffic engineer in Europe with their focus on safety for the most vulnerable road users this will also require an extra refuge or the addition of signal lights at crossings and junctions.

U.S. engineers will also say that this takes pressure off of drivers making left turns so they are more likely to wait for people walking or bicycling. Reality is that this doesn’t actually happen so much with an open lane as designed. For this to work requires cement curbed chicanes that force drivers to slow down.

The extra contiguous pavement increases noise for those who live along the road or who are walking or bicycling along the road. Tire and wind noise reflects off of concrete and asphalt but is largely absorbed by grass or vegetation. Contiguous or continuous pavement is worse because this noise reflectance is exponential with the amount of continuous pavement so even a small bit of vegetation that breaks up the continuousness of the pavement helps to reduce noise significantly. This is a more critical issue in the U.S. because unlike other developed countries we do not require lower noise tires nor do we very often use surfacing techniques on roadways to reduce noise.

Perhaps the bigger issue here though is that adding this center turn lane reduces bicycling and walking facilities. Ramsey County engineers have stated that they cannot do a wider MUT (and must build one 2’ narrower than state guidelines) nor a walkway on each side nor a proper bikeway + walkway on each side BECAUSE of the 12’ used by the addition of the center turn lane.

So while they state that this project is “to improve pedestrian and bike access”, and they have indeed done that, they are also making the roadway overall less safe.

This lane also results in the motor travel lanes being 6’ closer to homes on either side.

A Swedish engineer: “You make the motor vehicle lanes more dangerous, increase noise, decrease walking and bicycling facilities and decrease vegetation – Why would you do this?”

10 – Speed

Speed is actually not a very critical safety element here. A lower speed would be good and in safer countries this would likely be 37 MPH (60 Km/H) but simply decreasing the speed would not make this design much safer and one engineer told me that the primary reason they’d use a lower speed is noise, not safety.

Far more important than speed is driver attention. This design encourages drivers to NOT pay attention. The 42’ of wide contiguous pavement (and much wider at most junctions and crossings) tells drivers that they can drive faster and pay less attention because there’s A LOT OF ROOM FOR ERROR. So it’s OK to look at your phone or fix your hair in the mirror or look at the person next to you or look at the person walking along the path or look anywhere but at the road because – There’s a lot of room for error. And, you don’t have to worry about cars slowing or stopping in front of you – this is a non-blocking freeway like experience.

And where driver attention is most important is anywhere they interact with people who are less vulnerable – crossings. This is why outside of the U.S. crossings are made very prominent. 

One other point. At the roundabout for instance, the primary problem and the reason underpasses are critical is the volume of cars, not so much the speed. Only if the volume of cars was much lower would speed become a factor. But whether motor traffic is going 50 or 30, if there is no gap in traffic there is no gap in traffic.

 

Induced Demand and Category Creep

When a roadway is made to have less delay and higher speeds, when it becomes a speedier thoroughfare as is this plan with Hodgson, then more drivers will tend to use it more often as a through route from/to more distant places rather than taking a more appropriate route to their destination. This is called Induced Demand. The problems include:

  • Increased volume of traffic – More people choosing to drive through here than would otherwise. 
  • Less desirable drivers – People on a through route may drive faster and more aggressively with less attention and less consideration for others.
  • Negating of Other Benefits – For local drivers this can render any potential delay reducing benefits such as the center left turn lane mute due to increased overall volume of traffic. It does however lessen traffic on  other routes (that are more appropriate for through traffic) such as Lexington, 96, 35W and 35E 
  • Increased Risk for Pedestrians and Bicycle Riders – Increase traffic volume makes crossing more difficult and more dangerous. 

Induced demand is often the result of Category Creep – when a roadway is migrated up in the functional categorization hierarchy. 

Another problem with category creep is for people entering from roads and driveways (private and public) connected to the creeped roadway. It is best to have Driveways, Retail Access Streets and Residential Access Streets connect only to lower speed and lower traffic volume Collector type roads for safer and smoother flow of traffic. When a Collector is made to be more of an Arterial then accessing it from side streets and driveways becomes more difficult and more dangerous. This is because the higher speeds and traffic volumes need traffic lights or roundabouts for safe exchange of traffic.

Here’s another difference between what Ramsey County are doing and what you’ll see elsewhere. Engineers in other countries will look at this section of Hodgson with a lot of side streets and driveways and say that it has to be a Collector and remain a Collector. 

 

Junctions

There are a number of elements of junctions (roundabouts, intersections, side road entrances and sometimes high traffic driveway entrances) in Europe that make them safer than those in the U.S.

Aside from crossing distances being much shorter they also usually place the crossings farther back from the junction. This has several critical advantages; 

  • Cars/drivers are perpendicular to the crossing and more able to see someone in the crossing or about to cross.
  • Cars are going much slower after they turn than they are when encountering a crossing in Ramsey County that is at the beginning of a turn. 
  • There is sufficient room for a car or small truck to stop before the crossing and also be out of the way of traffic behind them.
  • Reduces bicycle rider and pedestrian congestion as a waiting area serves one crossing direction only vs Ramsey County crossings that serve two crossings in two different directions. For example, this is a frequent problem in the NW corner of Hodgson and Village Center Dr when people are waiting to go south across Village Center Dr and blocking the bikeway for people crossing Hodgson so the people crossing must stop and on numerous occasions drivers waiting to turn right on to Village Center Drive did not expect them to stop and began going and nearly hitting (or in one case that I know of did hit) people.

For more: 

 

Roundabout

Roundabouts are much safer for people in cars than intersections and they can be safer for people walking and bicycling.

Ramsey County have done some good things with this roundabout from a walking and bicycling standpoint. The crossings are set back from the roundabout and they’ve included refuge islands. For a lower volume and lower speed roundabout these, perhaps along with some sharks teeth and slightly shorter crossing distances, would be sufficient to make this a safe roundabout.

However, the traffic volume, entrance speeds and design speed of this roundabout are too high for surface crossings. In countries with safer road systems this roundabout would have underpasses for people walking and bicycling.

And these underpasses are in countries where drivers nearly always, like perhaps 99.99% of the time, stop for people in marked crossings. Stopping percentages are massively lower in the U.S. and in Ramsey County. In testing this at a roundabout further south on Rice Street I found that only 3% of cars stop for someone in a crossing. 97% DID NOT stop.

The minor problem is crossing traffic entering the roundabout where you need only be concerned about cars from one direction and these cars are actively slowing down to enter the roundabout.

The major problem is crossing exiting traffic. Here you must watch for traffic from EVERY arm of the roundabout. With a roundabout you generally do not know what car or truck will be exiting where so you must consider that ANY of them will want to exit where you want to cross and so EVERY one is a threat.

In The Netherlands I can make surface crossings at most roundabouts without worrying about cars because I know that they will stop (if I have right-of-way which is most often the case). Every driver in The Netherlands (and largely throughout Europe) know that they may need to yield to someone in a crossing on exit and so they are prepared for it. That’s not the case here in Ramsey County so to cross safely I have to wait until there are no cars in the roundabout nor close to entering any other arm.

This might not be a problem during some parts of the day but during morning and evening rush and somewhat at other times this can be a challenge. It can easily take 10–30 minutes until it’s safe to cross.

That’s a long time to wait and especially for a child riding 10 minutes to school. So people begin taking risks and crossing when it’s ‘almost safe’. Most of the time this works OK. Some of the time a car not prepared to stop does, which is good, but then the car too close behind them not prepared to stop slams in to them. And sometimes the car does not stop and someone ends up dead.

So this is a roundabout that would be only nominally safe with Dutch drivers and even so many or most traffic engineers there would not use surface crossings. How save is this with U.S.drivers?

 

Comparisons

Following are comparisons of Existing, Proposed and CROW stacked for comparison. CROW is how this road would be built in Europe given function and volume. House setbacks along Hodgson vary – this is using an approximate average. (yes, one lane is going in the wrong direction – an occasional abnormality of this app).

The proposed roadway places motor travel lanes about 6’ closer to houses on each side than the existing roadway. This plus extra contiguous asphalt will likely also result in considerable more noise.

Current Roadway:Hodgson22Existing

Proposed Ramsey County Design that adds a traffic lane:Hodgson22Proposed

CROW Design (how this would be built in Europe to be much safer and quieter):
Hodgson22CROW

The CROW plan is safer for all users, including people in cars, is quieter, places motor traffic farther from homes and yards, provides more yard space and more green space.

 

Conclusion

While the proposed plan is somewhat an improvement over the current road it is still far behind in terms of safety and access compared to what other developed countries are doing. Ramsey County Traffic Engineers can make this a safer roadway.

Trumpkin’s Notes On Building A Sauna

On the path to building our new sauna we learned that there is a lot of not so good (or downright bad and misleading) information on the web and from U.S. and North American sauna vendors, and that there are a lot of details that are critical to get right and easy to get wrong. Forums, Reddit, Facebook groups and websites in english consistently recommended ceilings no higher than 7’, ventilation that the laws of physics say won’t ventilate and other things that just didn’t make sense.

We traveled to Finland and Sweden to experience sauna and learn from experts. Like Glenn Auerbach did more recently, we’d noticed a huge difference between saunas in the U.S. and saunas in Europe. Sauna’s in Europe are consistently much better. We wanted to know why.

This is largely my notes from 2017-2019 as we were designing and building our sauna. Unfortunately there were a few things we didn’t learn until after our sauna was finished. These have been added here and whenever possible to our sauna.

I hope that this information will help others to avoid the mistakes that we made or almost made.

Disclaimer: I am not an engineer nor doctor. Nor any kind of expert on sauna. The following is simply a bunch of notes on what we learned building our sauna and that we wish we’d known much sooner. Use at your own risk. I strongly encourage everyone reading this to do further research on all of these topics and in particular to read Lassi’s book (listed at the end). And if there is anything inaccurate below please let me know so that it can be corrected.

For a semi-brief intro of Finnish Sauna and how to properly take a sauna: Intro To Sauna

 

What Is Sauna?

One important thing I’ve learned is that you won’t find much of a detailed definition of what is or is not sauna – a specification of any sort. How can we build a sauna without a spec? Without knowing what we’re trying to accomplish or aiming for? I even tried to get a spec written and received considerable, though very polite, pushback. Finns don’t want to box sauna in too tight. And rightly so.

What you will find is that saunas considered to be good in Finland all include certain details like a lot of stones (a sauna is heated by stones and the stones by a heater) that you throw water on to control humidity, foot benches above the stones, good ventilation for bathers, the ability to get to or above 100°c (212°f) for those who desire it. These are ideals that good sauna builders there consistently aim for. And for good reason – because each has a functional purpose – a reason for being done. Each one of these and the other elements below contributes to a more enjoyable and healthy sauna experience.

“There’s a point where magic happens. When the löyly is so good, so close to perfect, that you know you’re experiencing something special. The air is fresh and pure without suffocating levels of CO2, even temps surround your entire body head to toe and front to back, no chilliness of any sort, little or no radiant heat from the heater or elsewhere and soft hygroscopic wood all around. The temp is somewhere above about 94°c, perhaps above 100°c, and it is wonderfully refreshing. Fresh water is thrown on the mass of stones, the steam rises and your entire body is enveloped in löyly. This is sauna.”

Sauna builders in Finland have a clear target that they aim for and they very often hit it.

SaunaPolar05

Occasionally though, constraints force compromises – and builders then do the best they can within the constraints placed on them. And that’s OK. Not meeting these 100%, being further off the mark, doesn’t necessarily mean that something isn’t a sauna, just that it’s not the ideal and so may be a lessor or different experience. 

Someone may prefer to have all glass walls for instance, and that’s certainly OK. Or they may want lower benches. What’s important is that they understand what affect these will have so that they can make an informed choice – what bit of better sauna experience are they giving up for a better view or not having to climb up higher.

Too often North American consumers are not provided the information to make good choices. We buy a kit or hire someone to build a sauna for us and it’s built to often misguided American beliefs rather than Finnish ideals. We’re told it’s a ‘Finnish Sauna’, but it rarely is. And this is all without any discussion. That’s not right.  

 

Form, Function and Löyly

What follows is about function and Löyly. It’s about the things that are needed for a good proper Finnish sauna experience.

Form is important also and form can enhance function. Sauna is more enjoyable in a room that is aesthetically pleasing than one that’s not. Should sauna function ever be compromised for form? Perhaps. But not for our sauna, the one we use several times per week. For our routine saunas we want as great a sauna experience as we can get.

Some people may be more interested in form and want only what function fits the form they desire. And that’s OK, it just may not be sauna. Or the löyly is slightly compromised for an really amazing view. And that’s OK (and I’d love to come enjoy the sauna and the view). Saunas Of The World is one of my favorite Instagrams because I love architecture and it has some fabulous looking saunas and places, but many or even most of what they feature are either not sauna’s or not good sauna’s. I’d still love to visit many for a sauna though.

What’s important is not that every sauna be ideal, that it hits the golden bullseye above, but that people know and understand what compromises to the sauna experience are being made. 

 

We Don’t Know What We Don’t Know

I thought I knew what good sauna was but it was not until I experienced a lot of proper sauna in Finland that I realized just how bad saunas in the U.S. are.  Glenn Auerbach thought he knew good sauna until he was surprised that he never got dizzy in saunas in Finland. I’ve known people who were positive that the sauna they’d built 10 years ago and used multiple times every week since was a great sauna . …until they fixed the ventilation.

U.S. saunas are like freeze dried instant coffee. Great …until you try the real thing. 🙂 

Many people will build a ‘North American’ sauna with bad ventilation and low benches that result in cold feet and be quite happy with it. We’ll think that we’re experiencing good sauna because we don’t know any better. And if we’re happy with it that’s actually OK.

The problem is when we invest a lot of time and money in building a sauna and then later learn that it’s inadequate, it’s not the Finnish sauna that we thought, that there are much better options. This happened to us.

 

Details Are Important

“90% of saunas in North America are bad. The other 10% are worse.”
– Board Members, Finnish Sauna Society
– Mikkel Aaland

There are reasons for that statement and very good ones. U.S. saunas suffer from bad information and a love of mediocrity and don’t-sweat-the-details. U.S. traffic engineers not sweating the details on road design is why we have the most dangerous road system of all developed countries, why a child in the U.S. is 11x as likely to be killed walking or riding a bicycle as a child in Europe and why children in the U.S. don’t walk/bicycle to school as children in healthier countries do. One of many examples for why we have, not just mediocre, but the lowest life expectancy of all developed (and many third-world) countries. Details can be quite important.

We think that cold feet and a desire for fresh air is normal for sauna, but it’s not. It’s only normal in poorly done saunas, most of which are in the U.S. (though it’s been pointed out to me that there are a lot of poorly designed and built saunas in Finland as well).

Some things we noticed on our travels in Finland: EVERY sauna required climbing up several steps to the benches from the changing room – feet are nearly always above the stones. EVERY sauna except one had good ventilation. They all had an adjacent shower and with a tiny few exceptions, a window or two. All critical details that make for a much better experience.

The biggest thing though is how much more enjoyable sauna is in Europe. More even enveloping heat front to back and head to toe. No cold feet or chilly backs. And that there’s a huge difference in leaving a sauna having benefited from heat and löyly versus leaving because you feel like you need air to breath. 

These details are more critical for women. Women are more sensitive to temperature and more uncomfortable with cold feet or chilly backs. More importantly they are, by design, more impacted by high levels of CO2 and so poor ventilation makes for a much more uncomfortable experience for women than for men.

If ten men and ten women experience typical U.S. sauna’s; 5 men will like it and 1 woman will, the rest not so much.  This is why so many saunas in the U.S. fall in to disuse – they are not that great of an experience.

Those same 20 people experiencing proper sauna; 9 men and 9 women enjoy it and can’t wait until the next time. These are the saunas that get used frequently forever.

A bit of effort up front sweating the details, aiming for better than mediocre, provides thousands of hours of more enjoyable and beneficial sauna for years to come. It’s worth the effort

 

Building Or Buying A Sauna

Sauna 7Laws

Whether buying a kit, building from scratch or having someone build it for you, here are some critical things to look for (somewhat in order of importance). These are the things that are most often done incorrectly in North America and that are the cause of the “90% of saunas are bad” statements.

– Foot bench should be above the top of the stones. 

– Proper ventilation (for electric: fresh supply above the heater, stale exhaust (mechanical) below the foot bench).

– Proper amount of stones. MINIMUM 6kg / m³ (1/3 lb / cf) of space and 17kg (37 lbs) per person.

– Vestibule, often a changing room and shower, to provide an air lock.

– Proper vapor barrier and insulation.

The first two are nearly non-negotiable items – falling short on these may have a dramatic affect on your sauna experience. All however can be cheated somewhat if necessary but may result in a lessor experience.

If buying a pre-cut also be cautious of people capacity. Some manufacturers will advertise a greater capacity than the sauna can actually accommodate.

I’d strongly recommend against any barrel less then 8-10’ in diameter. More below.

 

 

The Notes – Some Important Details We’ve Learned

So here, some quick notes on what we have learned about sauna design and building (some that we wish we’d learned much sooner). Special thanks to Kimmo Raitio, Jarmo Lehtola, Risto Elomaa, Eero Kilpi, Lassi Liikkanen, Allison Bailes, Glenn Auerbach, Christopher Wegscheid and many others for their ideas and patience in answering my endless questions and their perseverance in making sure that I not only built a proper sauna but understood sauna.

Hot Room Space – Minimum of 2 m³ or cubic meters (70 cf) per person plus one (35 cf) for the elf.  Larger is better, smaller not. A good recommendation from Lassi Liikkanen for a four person sauna is an 8’x8’ interior floor space and 8’4” interior height resulting in 130cf/person. This is comfortable for 4 people, benches aren’t too close to the stove, gets the foot bench above the stones for most stoves and provides a good heat cavity.

Reduce Harsh Radiant Heat – Space between bathers and the stove, perhaps about 1.5 – 2m (5′) or more, is a good thing. While the radiant heat from a ceiling heater will feel quite nice when it’s 45°f outside, or IR in a 120°f IR cabin, radiant can feel harsh in the higher temps of a sauna. Many people find it more comfortable to be warmed evenly by soft löyly than unevenly by harsh heat radiating directly off the heater. This is also one reason why having the foot bench above the stones is important.

Bench and Ceiling Height Are First Determined By The Stones – Temps are much more consistent, stable and comfortable above the top of the stones than below. 

START with setting the foot bench at or somewhat above the top of the stones. 4” (10cm) above is good, 12” (30cm) is better. The sitting bench then is 17-18” (45cm) above the foot bench and the ceiling 44-48” above the sitting bench. Someone sitting upright on the sitting bench with their feet on the foot bench then have their entire body above the stones and have room to use a vihta.

If you’re building outside then you’re good to go. If inside and this is higher than your maximum ceiling height then you can play with things to get the best outcome. A heater that can be lower perhaps or tighten up the heights.

There is a misguided belief in the U.S. that sauna ceilings should not be higher than 7’. This is quite incorrect. This chart shows one reason why Finns say it is so important to have the foot bench above the stones and why a higher ceiling is often better than a lower ceiling. The higher you are in the space the less of a head to toe difference you’ll experience and the more enjoyable your sauna will be.

Side Note: This 7’ myth likely originated with the energy crisis of the 1980’s, a misunderstanding of sauna and physics, and nobody ever questioning it. In a typical room where we stand on the floor and want to remain comfortable at body level then a higher ceiling requires considerable extra heat above our body to remain comfortable at our body that is in the lower and cooler part of the room. A 7’ high ceiling needs to be about 70°f at the ceiling for our body to be 68°f but a 9’ ceiling will need to be much warmer, about 74°f, at the ceiling for that same 68°f body temp. A sauna is quite different. Since we are keeping our body in the upper part of the space then any additional space is added in the lower portion below us and so lower temps. Regardless of how high the ceiling is we’ll still want the ceiling to be about 200°f. And though much higher temps we are only heating a sauna for a portion of each day/month/year rather than constantly. While a 7’ sauna may cost $1.00 / hr to maintain temps, a 9’ sauna will cost about $1.07 / hr to maintain much more comfortable temps.

SaunaHeat

No matter how high the ceiling is, the temps near the top and bottom will be about the same given other conditions (fresh supply air, heater, changing room or outside temp…). If the temps are 100°c top and 40°c bottom in a 7’ high sauna then they will be the same in a 9’ or 10’ high sauna. Raising a 7′ ceiling by perhaps 16” to 8’4” for instance allows bathers to also be 16” higher and so not just have greater warmth but perhaps more importantly have less of a head to toe temperature differential and so less likely to have cold feet. That their feet are above the stones helps more.

Ventilation with fresh air supply below the heater that pulls colder air upwards will make stratification and cold feet worse. Good high to low ventilation with supply above the heater will lessen stratification resulting in a more pleasant and comfortable experience. Do not count on ventilation or air movement to overcome too low of benches though – it can help but rarely overcome stratification.

Here’s an IR image of our sauna showing how quickly the air cools as you go lower. How cold do you want your feet?

SaunaIR01

Feet above the stones also increases heat felt from löyly and decreases radiant heat from the stove. The former can be more comfortable and less harsh than the latter. This is particularly important for bathers closer to the stove.

Sauna builders in Finland will sometimes refer to the area above the stones as löyly onkalo – ‘The Löyly Cavity’. It’s where löyly is and it’s where we want to be. 

About the lower third of any sauna, regardless of ceiling height, will be rather cool so many builders will also try to keep the foot bench above this point if possible. 

A ceiling at 48” above the sitting bench provides more comfortable room for using a vihta and as Risto Elomaa says “this is important”. If you’ll have taller people then perhaps 50” would be good.

With open sided tower or mesh style heaters such as the Harvia Cilindro or Tylo Himalaya you can sort of get away with cheating the foot bench down a few inches if necessary, like maybe 4” below the top of the stones. It won’t be as comfortable as being above but with proper high to low ventilation it can be acceptable.

Access to the benches can be via steps or a platform can be built 17-18” below the foot bench with steps up to it from the changing room floor. If room allows, three benches can be beneficial and especially if the middle of these, that is both a sitting bench itself and a foot bench for the highest bench, can be a bit extra deep.

Large Heat Cavity Above The Door – Every time the door is opened some heat and löyly escape and it’s the heat from the top of the door opening down where this happens. Heat and löyly that are above the door opening remain in the sauna. For the most part the larger and higher this cavity the better.  Being larger means that a larger volume of heat is retained within the sauna and a lessor percent is lost with each door opening. Being higher results in the hottest air being retained and cooler lost.

A 7’ sauna with a 6’6” door will loose 190°f air while protecting only about 6% while a 9’ sauna with a 6’6” door will loose 181°f air while protecting 26% of the hottest air. 

In practical terms bathers will feel less colder air directly, the overall sauna temp will decline less and the sauna will recover to proper temps sooner. Overall much less discomfort for bathers. This can help any sauna but the more people coming and going the more critical it is. In saunas that will have many people coming and going the builder will try to have the foot bench and often the platform above the top of the door (so a platform at about 6’6” and ceiling at 12’ vs changing room floor).

Bench Widths – Provide 2’ or 60cm of sitting bench AND foot bench per person. If a L shaped bench then a bit more so that the people in the inside corner don’t have their legs on top of each other.

A Bench to Lay On – At least one sitting bench should be at least 76-80” so that someone can comfortably lay down. 

Bench Depth – 24-28” is the recommended minimum as this is both comfortable for sitting and wide enough to lay down on. Lassi recommends as deep at 40” for the top sitting bench which is a good idea if you have space. If you have an L shaped bench then one 28” and one 40” would likely be ideal. If space is tight then narrowing the foot bench is the place to start.

Bench Board Gaps – A minimum of about 1/5 of the seating surface should be air permeable so about 5:1 maximum wood to air gap. 4:1 or 3:1 can work better. Gaps should be wide enough for good air circulation (minimum 3/8”) but not so wide (7/8” maximum?) as to be uncomfortable to sit on. A larger gap of about 1-2” at the wall that allows better airflow behind bathers can help keep bathers backs warmer (though shouldn’t be so large that all of the air flows there and none to bathers front). If the faces of the benches are not open then these should be at least 30% permeable (3:1 wood to gap).

Wood – Wood is hygroscopic which helps to even out temp and humidity extremes to provide a more comfortable experience. It also remains cool to the touch and absorbs some noise to make for a quieter and more peaceful environment. Ideally you want about 75% of the wall surface area and all of the ceiling to be soft wood.

Almost any wood can be used though some are better than others. Cedar is popular in the U.S. but can be too fragrant for many people and the oil in some cedar and other woods can be toxic though I’ve no idea how this plays out in a hot sauna. Spruce, Fir and Aspen seem the most popular in Finland and Sweden. Maybe avoid woods like pine with too much sap. Be careful of knots, especially for benches, platforms and backrests, as a knot with sap or pitch can get hotter to touch than surrounding wood and knots can pop out with hot/cold cycles.

A good discussion on wood: Why Nordic White Spruce

Avoid plastic, vinyl, PVC, treated lumber, spray foam insulation or similar materials – When heated to sauna temps they can give off noxious gasses and worse these are often odorless so you do not realize you are breathing anything noxious. They may be OK outside of the vapor barrier (and insulation). The goal of sauna is to be enjoyable, not to get cancer.

Be careful of Glues and Binders. These can produce unhealthy and unappealing fumes when heated. Glues and products such as OSB or Plywood should be avoided or minimized (though OSB sheathing that is on the outside of the vapor barrier and insulation is fine). 

Groove Down – With T&G walls the tongue should face up and the groove down to avoid moisture, water or sweat collecting in the grooves. 

It Gets Hot – Be careful of any metals, woods or other materials that get hot easily as getting burned on these can be less than pleasant.

Warm Dry Floor – Stepping on to a cold or cold and wet floor while still in a hot room doesn’t make for a pleasant experience. A wood slat floor (duckboards) makes for a more enjoyable end to each sauna round. They will also help to keep benches cleaner as debris on the bottom of feet are more likely to remain on the boards or fall through them vs a hard floor where debris are more likely to stay on feet to be deposited on to the foot bench. Duckboards actually seemed quite rare in Europe as the entry to almost every sauna hot room was a step, followed by another one or three steps to get up to a platform and the benches.

Door Opens Out and Is Unable To Be Latched – This is primarily a safety thing. Anyone in the sauna hot room needs to be able to exit quickly and easily at any time with a simple push on the door. There should never be anything that can accidentally block the door (such as the door to outside from the changing room) nor should there be any type of latch that can accidentally be latched or as a prank.

Cognitive and motor abilities can decline quickly and suddenly with heat stress and this especially if CO2 levels are high from poor ventilation. This can make any effort beyond simple pushing difficult or impossible. 40-50% of sauna deaths (which are quite rare but still 40-60 per year in Finland) are alcohol related with falling asleep in sauna the number one cause. One person told me that being unable to exit is the cause of some deaths every year which baffles her because she said it’s difficult to find such saunas in Finland as they are all made with easy exit for safety. Someone could also die from CO2 poisoning in an unheated sauna with poor ventilation if they are accidentally locked in.

Stove Sizing – Bigger is not necessarily better. If interior height is tight then a smaller stove may get the stones down lower in relation to the foot bench providing a more comfortable experience while too large of a stove will have the stones up higher so bathers will have colder feet and actually be less comfortable with a larger stove than smaller. Too large of a stove, particularly a cast iron or similar, may also result in too much radiant heat on bathers that can feel harsh and uncomfortable vs heat from stones and löyly. 

Too high of kW may also result in shorter heating cycles, faster heating swings and less comfort. A properly sized heater will have longer run times which results in less noticeable temp changes and greater comfort. The EU recommendations from EU manufacturers should be good. Pay attention though to things like very large windows that may result in excess heat loss and require a larger stove. The more stones the better and more stones help to smooth out the temp swings. A rough guesstimation is about 1.0 – 1.5kW per m³.

Hygiene requires higher temps – It’s critical that after a sauna has completed its duties for the day that heat is used to kill off bacteria and mold. The sauna should be able to maintain a minimum of +65°c / +149°f at the foot and sitting benches for a period of 15-20 minutes after use and after excess moisture has been exhausted.

Bacteria thrive in temps between about 4°c / 40°f and 60°c / 140°f. Mold between -5°c and 40-55°c.  A sauna is an ideal breeding ground for both. Once bacteria or mold gets a start in a sauna the only options to get rid of it is heat or removal of the material. Chemicals, which you never want to use in a sauna anyway, have too large of particles to penetrate to the roots of mold or home base of bacteria. 

Thermostat – Normally it should be placed at a height equal to 1m above the upper sitting bench and at least 20cm away from the heater. This will provide an accurate temp for sauna bathers. In North America many people place the thermostat much lower as otherwise they have an American warm room instead of a sauna. This could violate UL and manufacturer guidelines though which may be problematic.

UL Labs: Promoting Unhealthy Sauna Since 1977 – In the U.S. and elsewhere UL Labs states that the thermostat should be placed directly over the heater, 4-6” below the ceiling and that temps at the thermostat be limited to 90°c for electric heated saunas. This recommendation results in two problems;

1) Actual temps for bathers, at their heads and shoulders, are then only about 60-80°c which is well below the 85-100°c temps recommended by the Finnish and Int’l Sauna Societies.

2) Most critically this results in much too low of temps at the sitting and foot benches for good hygiene. Higher temps are needed to kill bacteria and prevent mold growth and UL labs prevents this.

As well, UL may be requiring sauna heater manufacturers to include a high limit temperature switch on their heaters with a very low high temp limit. This results in a couple of problems;

1) Heater manufacturers appear to be requiring a low fresh air supply vent in order to cool the heater, HL probe or both in order to prevent trips. This low vent results in poor ventilation for bathers and so high levels of CO2 in U.S. saunas.

2) It is somewhat common for people in the U.S. to separate the HL probe from the heater to prevent constant trips. If the HL probe and switch is needed from an engineering standpoint rather than just to meet a UL requirement then this could be problematic.

UL’s requirements do not appear to align with those of other countries and like new wine in old wineskins may be doing more harm than good.

Maybe avoid vaulted, coved or similar ceilings – In theory and in experience a flat or near flat ceiling is best as it results in the most even temps. A slight rounded cove in the ceiling or angled coves in the corners can help airflow.  Heavily vaulted, coved or sloped ceilings result in heat being up too high and reduce fresh air movement. A-Frames, Barrel saunas and similar shapes should usually be avoided though.

 

 

Stones 

More Is Better. MINIMUM 6kg / m³ (1/3 lb / cf) of space is a good starting target though several sauna builders I’ve talked with say 8kg / m³ is the minimum. More is better so 10-12kg / m³ is better. Beyond about 16kg / m³ is getting in to some diminishing returns so while perhaps still better, only marginally. More stones result in more even temps, more even softer steam and thus a more comfortable experience. A good sauna is heated by the stones and the stones by the heater. Nothing makes up for proper stones.

For perspective, a smoke sauna in Finland will have about 90kg of stones per m³.

Commercial Virgin Quarried Stones – Landscape stones or river rock may have organic matter (think cow dung) that is unhealthy and can produce unpleasant and unhealthy odors when heated and this can take years to burn out. There is also potential for stones to contain arsenic, asbestos, sulphur or other undesirable elements. Commercial sauna stones are assured to be able to tolerate heat and to be free of undesirable compounds.

Stones from along lakeshores can be quite good if they are not under water constantly (if they have green stuff growing on them you don’t want them). Whatever you choose, wash them well with only water.

Olivine diabase are a volcanic stone that some Finns believe are the ideal option. Gabro and Peridotite are also good.

Rough Is Good – Stones should ideally have a rough surface to help hold tiny pools of water to make better steam. Smoother or rounder stones do not do this so well (though some people do prefer the much milder steam that these create). If you want the look of rounder stones then maybe use them only for the top layers. 

Bigger Is Not Better – Stones should be about 5-15cm (2-6”) in size. Surface area is important so too big of stones will result in too little surface area and too small of stones will disintegrate and not last long.

Warm New Stones Slowly – Stones may sometimes have pockets of water inside them. Three hours @ 50°c, 3 hrs @ 75°c and 3 hrs @ 100°c with a day or half of cooling down between without anyone in the sauna will allow the water to either dissipate or if the stone is going to explode do so without hurting anyone.

Deeply Stoned – You want at least 3-4 courses of stones on top of each other so about 40cm or 16” of depth minimum.

Harvia has a good discussion on stones here.

 

Ventilation

“Löyly is the Purity, Temperature and Moisture Content of the air contained inside the sauna as well as its thermal radiation.”
– 1988 Finnish paper on sauna health benefits

The primary goal of ventilation in sauna is removal of exhaled CO2 (and to supply combustion air for a wood stove if needed). High levels of CO2, common in U.S. saunas, make saunas seem stuffy and cause bathers to exit because they need fresh (low CO2) air rather than because they’ve received the benefits of heat and löyly. High CO2 levels can also significantly reduce the benefits of muscle recovery after a workout. As well, we need to remove other impurities (both gaseous and particulate matter from throwing water on the stones) from the air and circulate air to achieve as even and comfortable of heat as possible.  Lassi Liikkanen also points out that it’s critical to remove excess humidity during the sauna – a proper sauna round includes cycles of high humidity followed by high heat and without ventilation we just get ever increasing humidity.

Our goal with ventilation is Löyly. Steam added to bad stale air is just that, steam added to bad stale air, not löyly.

Beyond make-up-air for the stale CO2 laden air that’s being removed, there is no specific need to bring in oxygen, there is plenty of oxygen in the air – it would be nearly impossible to run out of oxygen in a sauna even with high sauna temps. The problem in saunas is high levels of CO2 that result in feelings of fatigue, suffocation, brain fog or dizziness.

The following applies to electrically heated saunas and most wood stove saunas that are loaded and receive combustion air from outside of the sauna hot room (typically the changing room). Wood stove saunas with loading and combustion from within the hot room have some slightly different criteria.

Convection doesn’t work – If you have an electrically heated sauna you need mechanical ventilation using an electrically powered duct blower or similar. 1) Convection, even when working well, rarely produces sufficient airflow for a healthy environment and often zero airflow. 2) Convection relies on colder fresh air entering near the floor and being pulled upwards towards bathers as hot air exits higher up which results in greater temperature stratification, cold feet and cool legs. 3) Convection is unreliable and changes with wind direction and speed, temp, humidity and barometric pressure. 

Powered exhaust has a number of benefits including downward airflow that helps to reduce stratification and cold feet and does a better job of removing CO2 than upward airflow, consistent and predictable airflow regardless of outside conditions, and the ability to have it freshen the air once a day when the sauna is not in use.

15-25 CFM per person – We want to keep CO2 levels for bathers below 700 ppm and ideally below 550 ppm (or no more than 300 ppm above outside ambient levels and ideally no more than 150 ppm above outside ambient). A general recommendation is a minimum of 15 CFM (25 m³ / hr) per person though DIN1946 says that 18 CFM are needed. Due to higher levels of CO2 in exhaled breath gyms often require 20-25 CFM per person however so sauna’s may similarly need somewhat more than 15-18 CFM but this needs more study. It’s important to note that too much ventilation can lessen löyly by removing too much moisture so the amount may need careful balancing.

Fresh air supply ABOVE the heater – A fresh air supply below an electric heater results in this cooler air flowing across the floor (hot air rises, cold air sinks) and making a direct path to the exhaust vent rather than providing much or any fresh air benefit to bathers. The exhaust vent is exhausting the fresh air rather than the stale CO2 laden air. This also results in greater temperature stratification and colder feet. 

Air needs to enter in a way that it sufficiently mixes with the hot air and circulates up to bathers heads. A single vent above the stones should usually work fairly well. Better would be several smaller vents that result in a lower cold-air to hot-air ratio and so better mixing.

However… If the lower part of the heater is in a bit of a chamber that has the fresh air supply as well as a somewhat restricted room supply so that the fresh supply air cannot so easily flow across the floor to the exhaust vent and is forced to mix with the room air and rise up through the heater, then a lower supply vent might work. 

Note: Heaters sold in North America may require a lower vent to keep the overheat sensor (high limit switch) from nuisance tripping. In this case a dual vent system of a lower supply vent for the heater and an upper supply vent for ventilation may be required. The key will be to have only enough air to the heater for it to function properly and the rest from above the heater for bather ventilation. It’s not currently known why this is a problem for North American heaters and not for those sold elsewhere. 

We are modifying the vent system in our electrically heated sauna so that we can try various combinations of supply and exhaust over the next few months (winter 2021-2022) to see what works best for maintaining good air quality (low CO2), comfortable temps from head to toe and so … Good Löyly. My guess is that a T shaped duct over the stove with a few small vents in the upright portion and a few in the top cross portion will be the winner. And similarly a horizontal duct below the foot bench with several small exhaust vents spread across it.

Mechanical exhaust below the foot bench – This has two benefits. 1) The rising flow from the fresh air supply above the sauna stones will then flow downwards across bathers faces and carry exhaled CO2 down (CO2 is heavy so wants to sink) to the exhaust vent. 2) This helps to pull warmer air downwards to lessen temp stratification and keep legs and feet warmer and more comfortable.

This exhaust vent should usually be on the wall opposite the stove and supply vent. Multiple smaller vents spread out along the wall below the bench may improve mixing and thus bather comfort.

Information in English is Wrong. Unfortunately, information available in English regarding saunas is very often bad advice. Bringing in supply air below the heater is, from a bather ventilation perspective, a bad idea.

Sauna airflow bad

Because physics doesn’t work like that. In reality the majority of the air will not flow up, but down across the floor – it’s cold air, it likes being down low. Cold air is kind of like pouring BB’s or pellets out of the vent. Or think about how a dry ice machine works. A very tiny amount may flow in to the heater and some will rise up to envelope feet with cool air (and that’s not comfortable during sauna nor does it provide for proper heat afterwards to reduce bacteria and mold growth).Sauna airflow reality

This is likely worse, if it can be, with open sided heaters as the convective loop for these is likely higher up resulting in even less air entering below the heater being entrained and rising up through the heater. 

There are also recommendations to place the exhaust vent up higher, near or in the ceiling, particularly when using natural convection, but this doesn’t work well for ventilation either and, as Lassi Liikkanen correctly points out “we’ll be losing some or all of the precious löyly”.

Information in Finnish (and Swedish and German) says to do this (for good reason):

Sauna Ventilation electric heater

Sauna mechanical ventilation recommendation VTT 1992 SaunologiaFi

Sauna room ventilation uponor

EVERY sauna builder I’ve talked to in Finland and Sweden says to always have the supply above the heater and mechanical exhaust below the foot bench.

The Technical Research Centre of Finland (VTT) conducted research on sauna ventilation in 1991-1992. They confirmed what many sauna builders in Scandinavia already knew and practiced. The following graphic from their research does a good job of summing up how different supply vents function.

Sauna

T4 is the ONLY location that resulted in proper ventilation. T3 worked semi well but also caused somewhat cold feet. T2 and T1 provided near zero ventilation and resulted in cold feet.

Further research (CFD simulation on the air flow in a sauna – thanks Lassi Liikkanen) provided both confirmation as well as greater detail on what’s happening including the effects on temperature stratification within the sauna.

I’ve done some testing in our sauna. A fresh supply above the heater with mechanical exhaust low on the opposite wall results in acceptable CO2 levels. Supply below the heater with exhaust 24” above the floor as recommended by the manufacturer or our heater results in levels of over 1000 ppm with just me alone in a six person sauna and over 3000 ppm with six people. Acceptable is 550, 600 or 700 (depending on whose standard and down from prior maximums of 1000, 2500 and 10,000 as we’ve learned more about the harms of CO2).

So…, I know EVERYTHING in English says to put the supply vent below the heater (or behind the heater). Even TylöHelo, FinnLeo, Amerec, Huum, Harvia and other heater vendors say to do this in their North American manuals (when their other manuals get it right). But it doesn’t work. Physics says it won’t work and research proves it doesn’t work. The result is unhealthy and potentially dangerous levels of CO2 in North American saunas (besides experiences that fall far short of a proper sauna experience).

Also, CO2 is heavier than air and so naturally wants to sink. Ventilation flowing from high to low works efficiently with this but ventilation flowing from floor to ceiling is going against this and may not result in as much CO2 being removed per volume of airflow.

Note for North America: Electric heater manufacturers in North America recommend supply air from below the heater rather than above as the rest of the world recommends. As this is known to provide poor ventilation and result in high levels of CO2 for occupants the only reasonable reason for recommending this is to cool the heater itself. There are only two reasons I can think of why this would be; 1) A UL requirement that the heater surfaces not get over some maximum temp or 2) The heaters or some portion of them are lower quality than those sold in Europe (that do not appear to need this cooling air) and so need the air to cool them. 

Electric sauna heaters sold in North America often include a High Limit Switch or Over Heat Protection switch with a quite low trip temp. Perhaps another UL requirement though I have been unable to verify that. A supply of cool air may be needed to cool the probe (typically on the back side of the heater) or the heater itself to keep the HL switch from tripping. Comments from installers and problems they’ve seen also elude to U.S. heaters being made to lower quality standards than those elsewhere.

A possible solution is a dual supply vent; one low to cool the heater/probe and one high to provide ventilation for occupants (and this is likely the best for wood fired as well but more on that later). Ideally you want most coming from the upper vent to provide ventilation for bathers so the lower vent should be adjustable so that it provides just enough for what the heater needs to keep from overheating with the rest coming from the upper vent.

5 Effective CFM is better than 20 Ineffective CFM – If your heater has difficulty keeping up with cold fresh supply air then reduce the flow rather than move the vent lower. 5 CFM entering above the heater that helps to reduce CO2 is much more beneficial than 20 CFM entering below the heater that does not reduce CO2 levels and adds to cold feet. 

Multiple Smaller Vents Might Be Best – Ten 2” supply vents above the stones might work better than a single 6” as it will result in better mixing (better hot:cold ratio so less of the colder supply air will sink to the floor). Similarly four 3” exhaust vents spread out below the foot bench might do a better job of removing excess CO2 for all bathers than a single 6” that might work well for those directly above but not so well for those further away.

Maybe Pre-Warm The Supply Air – Bringing supply air in to the hot room below the heater and then having a metal duct run up the wall behind the heater to nearer the ceiling where it is exhausted will pre-warm the supply air and may result in better mixing, better CO2 removal and a more comfortable sauna experience. This isn’t critical but something to consider. It may also be possible to capture some rising heated air from the heater to mix with this colder supply air before it’s supplied to the room which would result in better overall mixing.

Clearing Exhaust in/near Ceiling? – (Maybe) Include a clearing exhaust in or near the ceiling opposite from the stove and supply air. After the day is done this exhaust can be opened (with the stove still heating) with the blower running for about 15-30 minutes to clear the sauna of accumulated moisture which will help with keeping mold and bacteria at bay. HOWEVER, I’m not sure that this extra vent is necessary. If you have a supply vent over the heater and mechanical exhaust on the opposite side below the foot bench then when you’re done with your sauna for the day you should be able to simply leave it going (heat and ventilation) for 15-30 minutes and get the same result. It should effectively exhaust excess moisture and, assuming at least 55°c at the foot bench, kill most bacteria and mold. This needs more study.

Duct Design – The smaller the duct the more noise from airflow (and the more static pressure) so somewhat larger is better. 4” round for up to 50 CFM, 6” for up to 140 is good. Make sure that the blower and nearby duct is mounted w/ perf strap or isolation hangers and that neither the duct nor blower contact any framing to prevent vibration noise from coming inside your sauna. A silencer (such as from Fantech) installed between your vents and blower can reduce noise a bit more.

Use Hard Duct – Flex duct results in high static pressure, often cannot tolerate the heat of a sauna and should not be used for exhaust ducts. Stretched tight and installed properly, it’s OK for supply air (and may be a good idea in really cold environments as insulated flex doesn’t have the condensation problems that metal duct does).

Blower Size – Blowers are typically rated for how many CFM or m³/hr they deliver. The marketing material will typically only publish what is called free air flow which is the blower without any ducting or wall caps that can reduce airflow. These things that reduce airflow are called Static Pressure. If you are familiar with Static Pressure then you should calculate the static pressure losses in your fresh air supply and exhaust ducts and choose a fan that delivers the desired CFM @ xx” Wg.  However, in most cases you’d likely be safe to simply choose a blower that has 150-200% of your desired airflow. A variable speed blower and controller are highly recommended.

Control – Controlling the exhaust blower with something like a Lutron Casetta provides a number of benefits. First is that it will allow for speed control of the blower so that ventilation can be adjusted to balance CO2 removal and heat. It can have a timer to automatically turn ventilation off a certain amount of time (20 minutes?) after sauna is done for the day. It can be programmed to turn on for some bit of time each day (20 minutes every morning at 7a ?) to prevent musty stale air when the sauna is not in use. On the latter it’s best if this can be done with a smart system of some sort so that it only does this automatic ventilation when supply air humidity will not be too high.

Measurement – Ideally we want to keep CO2 at bathers faces below 700 parts per million and ideally below 550 ppm. Measuring is difficult because CO2 meters don’t work well at sauna temps. We are working with a company on a solution but it’s still a ways out. In the interim there are a couple of options if you want to see how your own sauna does. First is to place a CO2 meter somewhere that temps remain below the max temp for the device (typically 60°c). In our sauna that’s on the platform below the foot bench. Many or most home devices do not provide accurate readings however those from CO2meter.com, IQ Air, and Awair (version 2 or later) have proven reliable. Avoid Foobot. Note that the actual CO2 level at bathers faces is generally a bit higher so adding 10-20% to readings might be good.

The second alternative is to heat your sauna to a temp that is safe for your CO2 meter to be closer in proximity to bathers faces and then doing three rounds of ‘cool sauna’. It’s important to find friends willing to do this so that you have as many people as you’d normally have. CO2 is multiplicative so 4 people exhale about 4x as much in to the room as one person.

For some discussion on why U.S. heaters are different/inferior: Why Does Tylö-Helo Recommend Different Ventilation In The U.S. Than Anywhere Else?

 

Other Thoughts

A Shower Is Important – A shower directly adjacent and without having to go outside in cold weather is almost critical. It’s important to shower (and dry off) before first entering sauna and a cool shower is often a good way to cool down after each round. Rinsing sweat off before going outside in cold weather is not a luxury. The more convenient the shower the more likely it is to be used and the more pleasant an experience. We have two for our sauna; one inside (below) and one outside. In non-winter environs something as simple as a hose (or pre-made hose shower) on an outside wall can work.

Sauna05 100

A Window on the world – Being able to see outside while in sauna is quite enjoyable.

Changing Room/Shower/Vestibule – Besides changing and showering this space provides a critical air-lock function to lessen cold chilling air from blowing in to the sauna. It also provides a safe way to lock the building without the risk of locking someone in the hot room.

A Large Changing Room – The changing room can be a great place to relax, enjoy a Finnish Long Drink, read a book or take a nap. Making this a larger area is never a bad idea. Or maybe even have a central gathering room with the changing/shower off one way and the sauna off another.

A Covered Porch – When it’s raining or snowing it’s nice to be able to go in and out without the weather blowing down in to the changing room and a sheltered place to sit outside to cool down is quite wonderful. We don’t (yet!) have a covered porch and wish we did.

Heated Floors – If you have a concrete floor then adding in-floor radiant heat can make for a more comfortable experience, especially in the changing room and shower but also in the hot room. Extending this to the porch and nearby walks or patios (snow melt system) isn’t a bad idea either.

Privacy – Sauna is best enjoyed nude. Providing for some privacy for both inside the sauna building and for an outdoor patio can make for a much more enjoyable experience for all.

Four is better than One or Two?  Consider at least a four person (8’ benches) sauna. One of the joys of sauna is socializing and enjoying it with others.

Wood, Gas or Electric Heater?  Wood is more traditional and more romantic. Even the routine of preparing the fire has benefits and for many of us is quite enjoyable, relaxing and a great way to prepare for a good day of sauna. A wood sauna causes you to slow down a bit and be intentional about your sauna which is good. Drawbacks are that it is not as convenient, uses natural resources (trees) and is a direct source of pollution. 

Electric is certainly more convenient, especially with a phone app that allows you to begin preheating before you arrive home and electric maintains more even temps. Electric may be less healthy, this perhaps due to the calrods used for heating (though this, if it is a problem, could be eliminated with better heater design). Electric may have similar environmental impacts to wood though as resources are used to produce electricity and production of electricity often produces pollution (and making solar panels does as well). How the environmental impacts of wood vs electric compare is a much longer discussion.

One significant drawback to electric in the U.S. are the UL requirements and the problems they pose outlined earlier.

Gas is not as prevalent but can be a good option. Some local codes will not allow remote app control.

Hybrid. I built a hybrid gas/wood fireplace for our house. Natural gas is used primarily to get the wood going but is sometimes kept on if wood is greener than it should be. Similarly, it should be possible to create a gas/wood hybrid sauna stove that can act as a traditional wood stove (with a convenient gas starter) or have the convenience of a gas stove when desired. 

Insulation – Good and proper insulation in a sauna is important, not so much for energy efficiency as in a house, but for bather comfort. A wall that sucks a lot of heat out can make bathers backs feel cold relative to the front of their bodies and chilly backs can be quite uncomfortable (especially for women). We want to minimize this as much as possible. Well insulated walls provide for a better, more even and more comfortable löyly heat on all sides of your body.

Reducing thermal bridging through the studs is quite important to accomplish this. Traditionally (in Finland, Sweden, etc.) foil faced polyiso (such as FF-PIR) on the inside provides a good vapor and thermal barrier. Architect Christopher Wegscheid points out that environmentally this is not a good choice and a layer of mineral wool on the outside would be better. A proper rain screen is always important but critical with exterior mineral wool. Thick enough exterior insulation can eliminate the need for insulation between the studs however I’m not sure I’d do that for a sauna, especially in a colder environment. Attention must also be paid to the dew point and so condensation in wall cavities which varies by environment.

Mind The Gap – If you use radiant foil or foil faced polyiso / PIR (that meets temp requirements) as a vapor barrier (and you should use one of these) then you should include an air gap (0.5 – 0.75”) between the foil and interior wall boards using furring strips. There are three important reasons for this; 1) No gap could result in increased thermal bridging and a colder more uncomfortable wall because the foil can act as a cold sink, 2) so that the back side of the wall boards can dry out and 3) so that the radiant foil can provide some radiant benefit. If there is no air gap then the foil does not act as a radiation barrier and does not reflect any heat back towards the sauna. The air gap is critical for this. Done properly the walls of your sauna will be perhaps 5-20° warmer and provide a more comfortable experience. Details on this in Lassi’s book below.

  • Best – Cladding + rain screen + exterior mineral wool (1-2” minimum) + studs and insulation + foil vapor barrier + air gap + interior T&G.
  • Better – Cladding + rain screen + studs and insulation + foil faced polyiso or PIR + air gap + interior T&G.
  • Good – Cladding + rain screen + studs and insulation + foil vapor barrier + air gap + interior T&G.
  • Not So Good or Bad – Foil with no air gap

Location – Sauna, More Than Just The Hot Room – Sauna (verb) is not just sitting in the hot room and sweating. That’s actually a rather minor part of the experience. Sauna is hot/cold/hot/cold/hot/cold. Cooling off is just as important an element of each round as sweating. A sauna (noun) needs to be located where bathers can quickly and easily cool off each round such as a shower or going outside in winter. Ideal is a door to outside directly from the changing room.

Some Perspective On Temps – The Finnish Sauna Society and International Sauna Association recommend temps of 80-105°c (176-221°f) or 85-100°c at bathers heads and shoulders. The majority of Finns and Swedes I’ve talked with prefer 95-105°c with occasional warmer or cooler sessions. Dr. Jari Laukkanen’s study on the benefits of sauna bathing for cardiovascular health found average temps of about 75°c for participants (Finns, avg age 63). Russians seem to prefer either slightly cooler with much higher moisture (nothing like a steam room or hammam though) or much higher temps of 130-140°c (266-284°f) with lower moisture. My personal preference is 95-100°c most days with occasional 110-120°c days or sometimes longer rounds of 70-90°c. 

A good electrically heated sauna then should be able to maintain any temp from 70-105°c or better to 125°c or higher.

I think that many people in the U.S. confuse bad air from poor ventilation with heat exhaustion. FWIW, I’m ready to leave a 90°c sauna with bad air after about 10 minutes and the last few minutes doesn’t feel too great. In a sauna with good ventilation I feel quite good for 12-20 minutes at +100°c and every second until I step out feels great. Good ventilation is critical to being able to get the most out of heat and löyly.

 

Barrels:

Avoid Barrels Under 8-10’ In Diameter – Like really. Do not buy or build one. They do not provide a good sauna experience. Bathers often do not experience sauna temps (consistent 80-100°c at head and shoulders, no more than 15°c cooler at feet) and uncomfortably cold feet and chilly backs are difficult or impossible to avoid. This is very much a bigger is better thing. 6’ is awful, 7’ is minimally better, 8’ is better still, 9’ doable and 10’ can almost or maybe even provide an experience similar to a proper sauna.

In theory the shape is supposed to make the heat roll evenly around bathers, but physics, stratification of heat, doesn’t actually work like that. I’ve a growing collection of photos of people’s attempts at alleviating some of the problems of barrels with boxes on top benches, intricate fan arrangements, tents as vestibules and other stuff. Some of the problems include;

Too Low Of Benches – The primary problem is cold feet but often also cold legs and not so hot bodies. The good heat and löyly is above bathers heads in barrels and bathers are down in the cold area (see heat stratification chart above). Feet should ideally be no more than 15°c / 27°f cooler than our head and generally never cooler than about 60°c / 140°f and these are impossible in most barrels. Good sauna builders will try to avoid having the foot bench, and so any part of bathers bodies, in the lower 1/3 of the space since this area is always too cool.

Too Little Volume Per Bather – The volume of space per person in a barrel is typically much less than recommended which when the door is closed can result in CO2 levels increasing quickly and to quite high levels. High ventilation rates (assuming good dispersion/mixing) can help with this but in such a small space, even with an adequate heater, often results in cold airflow on bathers, particularly around their feet. Each time the door opens helps alleviate the high CO2 but also brings in colder air and allows heat and löyly to escape.

One popular 4 person barrel that is 6’ (71”) in diameter by 5.3’ (64”) in length has 37 cubic feet per person which is less than half the minimum of +70 cubic feet per person recommended and about a quarter the +120 cubic feet considered ideal so CO2 levels will increase two to four times as fast in a barrel.

No Heat Cavity Above The Door – A good sauna has a large cavity above the door to store heat and löyly. Without this a significant amount of heat and löyly escapes each time the door is opened which is uncomfortable for bathers, takes considerable time to reheat and is a waste of energy. This is worse in barrels as the shape effectively channels the heat up and out of the door. It’s like someone designed it to evacuate valuable heat and löyly as quickly and efficiently as possible. 

Direct Radiant Heat – Ideally in a sauna you don’t want any direct radiant heat, you want to be heated evenly all over by soft löyly. This is one reason for ‘Feet above the stones’. Bathers in a barrel experience significant direct radiant heat that leaves them hot on the side facing the heater and cooler on the side away from it (which is also the side that get’s blasted with cool air when the door opens). Glenn Aurbach describes it as like being a hot dog – you roast one side and then move over to the other bench to roast the other.

No Vestibule – The lack of a vestibule is much more critical with barrels than with proper saunas since a door opening to outside cold air in a barrel results in much greater and faster heat loss. And similarly, since heat is escaping so much more quickly, cold air is entering down below much more quickly.

No Insulation – The lack of insulation not only results in greater energy loss and higher electrical costs but also to less bather comfort. The walls of barrels are sucking heat out much faster than saunas with proper insulation which results in chilly backs for bathers. The few barrels I’ve seen in Scandinavia have been built from heavier 4-7” thick timbers which provide much better insulation.

Bacteria, Mold & Other Fungi – The foot bench (floor in a barrel) in barrel saunas rarely (actually never) maintains the 65°c / 150°f temps necessary to kill most mold and bacteria so growth of these is a common problem in barrels.

Low Cost May Be Misleading – Many barrel owners find that they need to build roofs over their barrels to prevent leaking, insulate them, add a vestibule, build new higher benches, add better ventilation and other stuff to try to mitigate some of the problems inherent in barrels. Uninsulated electric barrels likely cost a bit more in electricity due to lack of insulation and air sealing. Some or many barrels may not have a very long lifespan and will need to be replaced (or possibly just rebuilt) sooner. These additional costs could quickly make a barrel as expensive as a quite nice proper sauna building.

A large barrel, 3m or 10’ in diameter, that has the foot benches above the stones, a heat cavity above the door, bathers heads not too far below the ceiling and good ventilation can work but barrels in North America are not built like this.

More: 10 Things About Barrel Saunas and Why We Don’t Build Barrel Saunas.

Why Do So Many People Like Barrels? One is attractiveness – they’re cute. Second is perceived lower cost. Barrels can sometimes be placed nearer to property lines than a stick built sauna which is a significant advantage in smaller yards. A stick built might require a permit while a barrel not and a barrel might be considered temporary rather than a permanent structure.

The big one though is that we don’t know what we don’t know. We lack a good reference for what good sauna is. We think the cold feet and poor air quality in a barrel is normal. It’s not. People who have barrels and never experience anything better are often quite happy with their barrel. Especially if they live in a more temperate climate. And that’s rather good. And some people are just not very picky so a poor barrel is just as good for them as the best sauna in Finland. And that’s good for them. I’ve a friend who thinks freeze dried coffee is just as good as fresh ground drip and I’m happy for him. However, many barrel owners, once they experience real sauna, realize what they’ve been missing, what real sauna is like, quickly become dissatisfied and want a real sauna.

Improving Barrels – If you already have a Barrel. Raise the benches as much as possible and then raise the floor (that’s acting as a foot bench) to 16-18” below the benches. Moving the benches in towards the center a bit may allow a bit more head height for raising them. Normally you’d want the foot bench above the stones and sitting benches 18” above that but here that will be difficult or impossible so as high as practicable for each is the best we can do. Going a bit less then 18” bench heights will bring the floor and feet up higher and in this case the benefit of that will likely outweigh the slightly less comfortable shorter bench height. Making some 4” or so foot stools for people to use might help as well. Be careful about floor to heater clearances though.

In electrically heated saunas a fresh supply vent below the heater and exhaust higher up is a recipe for a not so good experience – it results in colder feet and does little to remove the CO2 that people are breathing. Instead, try 4 small 2″ – 2.5” fresh air supply holes above the heater (aligned vertical or slightly staggered, beginning about 2/3 of the way from the top of the stones to the ceiling and evenly spaced). And then powered exhaust below the benches (or ideally below the floor/foot bench) on the opposite end. Figure about 15-20 CFM per person (so 60-80 CFM for a 4 person sauna). This should help to even the temps out a bit, lessen cold feet and will do a better job of removing CO2.

A bit of wood across the top of the door opening that creates a bit of a löyly cavity above the door opening may help to preserve heat and löyly when the door opens. And since heat isn’t escaping as fast out of the top, then hopefully less cold air will come in near bathers feet. This might be particularly useful if people are coming and going at different times. Personally I don’t know that I’d do this (I probably would if I had a barrel) out of concern for people bumping their heads but thought I’d mention it.

Adding a vestibule of some sort to act as an air lock would prove quite beneficial, though at some point it’s just best to jump straight to building a proper sauna.

 

Important Resources:

Web Links:

Sauna Ventilation – Finding Good Pure Air 

SaunaLogia

Sauna Times Blog

 

EVERYONE building a sauna should read Lassi Liikkanen’s ‘Secrets of Finnish Sauna Design’. I’ve read over 20 books on sauna and sauna design. This is the best and most accurate I’ve found. I wish it had existed when we built our sauna as it would have saved me a lot of research time, a lot of headaches and two remodels.

 

Folks in the U.S. (and elsewhere?) may also want to read Glenn Auerbach’s ‘Sauna Build from Start to Finnish’. Some practical information for sauna construction. Link for it is on the SaunaTimes website (for some reason the link doesn’t work properly here and results in a really giant image). 

 

Other Worthwhile Books:

The Opposite Of Cold (Nordskog & Hautala)

Cathedrals Of The Flesh (Brue)

The Sauna Is (Hillala)

Sweat (Aaland)

Sauna Magic (Conover)

 

Still To Learn:

We see extremely high particulate matter (1.0, 2.5 and 10.0) when ladling water on to the stones. Part of this and possibly all of it is bits of stone breaking off and disbursing with the steam. I’d guess some of it is also from the calrods which isn’t good.

We’re still trying to figure out a good reliable way to measure CO2 near bathers faces during a sauna session. It’s easy to do at lower temps like 60°c but not so much at 90°c which is above the temp range for most meters. Airflow will be different then too so why I’d like to find a good way to measure it.

Roadways, Bikeways, Sidewalks, and Housing Values

Some time ago I did an analysis of how well home values were recovering in various Twin Cities communities.  The lack of new construction caused by the recession gave us a very unique opportunity to see how house buyers value communities—somewhat apart from the houses themselves. In other words, what really is the value of location, location, location.

We looked at the correlation between a number of factors and how well cities did with value retention and recovery. Some of these factors were crime (high correlation), proximity to local grocery, pharmacy, and eating (high), the presence of retirement communities (moderate), parks (moderate), and sports facilities (low).

Of particular interest was that there appeared no correlation between overall per capita housing value and how well cities performed through the recession. Wealthy and less wealthy were equally spread out among winners and losers. North Oaks for example has the second highest per capita housing value in the metro yet ranked 28th in value retention over our 3 yr study period[1].

At the same time I was working on another project to rate local pedestrian and bicycling facilities and friendliness—the ability of residents and workers to safely and comfortably walk or bike to local destinations like schools, churches, eateries, and grocery stores.

Out of curiosity I married these two projects a bit to see how pedestrian and bicycling infrastructure might impact house values and was quite surprised at how high of a correlation there appeared to be[2].

The red bars on the chart below (scale on the right) show the change in home values for each of the 76 cities in the Twin Cities Metropolitan Area over the three year study period (thru November 2012) —approximately 31 months of market decline and 5 of recovery[3].

HouseValue.03

From a monetary standpoint most of us would prefer to be in one of the communities towards the left that did relatively well during the recession rather than one towards the right. Houses in Anoka lost 22% of their value on average. That hurts. (Click for larger image)

The green bars indicate the relative cycling and pedestrian infrastructure in each of these cities. For reference, Amsterdam might be about a 20 on this scale, Copenhagen 15, and Stockholm 10. So, though 5 seems good, even our best lags well behind much of the developed world. This is similar to our roads being considerably more dangerous. A child riding in a car here is about three times as likely to be killed as one in The Netherlands.

Notice where the cities with better cycling infrastructure land on the chart and how this correlates to how well they did coming out of the recession. All of the suburbs with a cycling infrastructure rating of 4 or 5 are in the top third of housing value retention, and all but one rated a 3 are in the top 50%.

More importantly, looking at the three year change in value based on cycling infrastructure, those with a rating of 5 lost 1.4%, 4’s lost an average of 3.6%, 3’s lost 7.9%, 2’s lost 11%, and 1’s lost 13.2%.

Also note that the presence of cycling infrastructure is not very dependent on the overall value of housing in a city. Plymouth is 13th in overall house value with an average less than half that of top ranked Orono yet has excellent bicycling infrastructure and is 2nd best in value retention. Eagan, Maple Grove, and Chaska are right near the middle of the 76 metro cities in overall per capita housing value yet have fairly good walking and bicycling infrastructure and have done much better than average in value retention.

Walking and bicycling infrastructure also appear to have had a greater impact on house values than factors such as schools, and distance from the core downtowns of Minneapolis and St Paul, or the presence of lakes, sports, or senior living facilities. Only crime and proximity to shopping and eating appear to be valued more by buyers.

In the end I’m not sure to what extent the facilities themselves may impact how someone values a city versus secondary impacts like more people being active in a neighborhood make it more appealing. In other words, how many people specifically want the bikeways and how many see a bunch of folks out and about and like that.

Northeast Metro 

Now, let’s look closer at our own backyard.

HouseValueNE.03There is still correlation with our 18 northeast metro cities but noticeably less than in the entire metro. This is not surprising given the much smaller sample size.

Cities ranked 1 lost 10.1% of their value, but those ranked 2 lost 12.1%. The three cities ranked 3 lost 8.8%, and our lone 4 lost only 6.6%.

Clearly, buyers value NE Metro cities with bicycle and pedestrian facilities ranked 3 or 4 much higher than those ranked only 1 or 2 though the differences are not as stark as metro wide. Again, how much bicycle and pedestrian infrastructure actually plays in to this is difficult to say. Perhaps a major element is that the cities who value safe bicycle and pedestrian facilities also value other things that buyers value—kind of a package deal.

What Creates Value?

There are many factors that influence how someone values a city and what impact that has on their desire to live there and to pay a value premium for doing so. It is all of the things that bundle up to become location, location, location.

Nationally there are three factors that have emerged quite strongly over the past 10 years across all buyers though particularly among younger buyers; community, walkability, and quality.

Quality refers to people’s increasing desires for quality and longevity of design and construction in their own home and of those in their neighborhood.

Walkability is people’s desire to scale back their dependence on automobiles and the amount of time they spend in them. They want to be able to walk or ride a bicycle to schools, eateries, and for local errands such as groceries[4]. Some also want good transit options for somewhat longer journeys such as trips to downtown or sporting events.

This is particularly strong among Millennials who are driving less than prior generations. There are a number of reasons for this but improved health, lifestyle, and enjoyment appear the primary elements.

Note that WalkScore is a very poor indicator of reality. WalkScore is based purely on distance with no regard to quality. It will rank a 0.5 mile walk/ride on a 45 MPH road with no shoulders or sidewalks much higher than a 1 mile walk/ride along a 35 MPH road with 10′ wide shared use paths on each side. In reality the former, like Vadnais Heights, will have nobody walking and the latter, like Shoreview, will have a gob of people walking and bicycling.

Third is Community. People want to live where neighbors know each other.  Where they see each other at and going to the local grocery (or Village Scoop or Ingredients) and not a million people they don’t know. They want to shop and eat where they see the owner in person, not just on the cover of Fortune magazine[5]. And, they want to put down roots. They want to be somewhere that they feel they’ll be happy for 70 years, not just 7[6].

There is a fourth factor sometimes mentioned and that is a desire for better quality, healthier, and local food options. This includes both shopping and dining[7]. The local part is both the source of the food and of the owner, large franchises need not apply.

These are all also critical in why younger generations have been increasingly opting for urban rather than suburban living, even after they have children. Locally this is one reason why St Paul and Minneapolis have held their values so unusually well against suburbs.

This isn’t new but simply getting back to the way we did things for hundreds or thousands of years before the ascension of suburbs in the 1950’s. Historically we’ve built communities around a central village of daily necessities. We wanted to be close to a grocery, general stores, pubs, and schools so these were at the center with everyone living among and around them. The benefits of cars changed this with the suburban model separating what had been closer and mixed together. With typical suburban development people live in a large housing zone, drive to another zone for shopping, and to another for work. In 1950 this looked glamorous but today we’ve learned that spending a lot of time in our cars and traffic isn’t so much fun. What we are seeing today is a desire to get back to being close to daily amenities and to having the smaller tighter identifiable communities that we had prior to the rise of suburbs.

We’re Careful About What We Can’t Control

Something that became apparent in this study is that buyers increasingly place greater emphasis on fixed externalities than on things they have some personal control over. A kitchen, yard, or entire house can be remodeled and children can go to other schools but the freeway next door or view of an industrial plant likely won’t be changing.

For suburban house shoppers some fixed externalities often mentioned include traffic, crime, noise, pollution, and nearby properties that are poorly maintained. On the flip side, proximity to local shopping (grocery, pharmacy, etc) and eateries is increasingly critical.

Rail, both commuter and tram, is beginning to bubble up a bit as well. Both for being a desirable alternative to driving or riding a bus and because it reduces traffic (and thus noise, pollution, number of lanes required, etc.) on all roads and particularly on higher speed and volume roads.

People out eating, walking, playing, running, and riding bicycles adds to appeal. One realtor said that there’s nothing that sells Shoreview like a potential buyer seeing a bunch of people riding bicycles to Dairy Queen.

Local churches in a community add appeal though mega churches and their traffic not so much.

How Un-Valuable is Value?

A final thought. There is little to no correlation between home value and happiness. Numerous studies have found that nationally about $70k in household income is peak happiness value. Earning more doesn’t bring any greater happiness.

I know one family who sold a nearly $1 million suburban house and moved in to a smaller house about 1/3 the price in Cathedral Hill. After five years they say they are happier, enjoy being closer to neighbors, knowing their neighbors better, and walking or riding bicycles to shop and eat. This move wasn’t a financial decision but primarily to reduce the amount of time they spent driving. They said they got an unexpected bonus in no longer needing both of their cars and the lower financial burden has meant less stress and greater happiness.

I know one family (and possibly another now that I think about it) who moved closer to downtown White Bear Lake for similar reasons. Less house but closer to places to shop and eat. I know another who chose Circle Pines because they can ride dirt bikes there.

Despite the title, this isn’t really about monetary value so much as what people want in their communities. Monetary value is simply a proxy for a-lot-of-people-desire-this.

 


[1] North Oaks sank to 53rd in the following months. This most recent sinking however was likely due primarily to increased sales of new construction that has values below North Oaks average.

[2] Note that the pedestrian and bicycle ratings are highly subjective and based on opinions of a number of individuals. While they are likely fairly accurate they are not completely objective and did not include significant in-depth analysis of every city. Many are also borderline. While Shoreview is a 4, it could just as well have been a 5. Likewise, Maple Grove is a 4 but should perhaps have been a 3.

[3] These were calculated using 6 month running averages so should be fairly representative of actual. The period was chosen based on housing start data and ended when construction activity picked up. Normally new construction drives the average housing values in a city more than anything so this period gave us a very unique chance to see values without them being hidden by new construction.

[4] Note that walkscore and bikescore have proven poor measures as they are focused on distance and not quality. A half mile walk along a busy road with no sidewalk is rated better than a three-quarter mile walk along an appealing segregated path.

[5] One couple told me that one reason they like living in downtown St Paul is that they don’t want to be tempted by Costco. They like shopping at relatively local stores (Lunds and Mississippi Market) and going to local eateries (Nina’s and Cheeky Monkey).

[6] Somewhat related to this people want a strong city (finances, planning, community involvement, etc). They don’t want to live in a city that they expect will encounter difficulties in future years taking care of local roads, parks, and other amenities.

[7] A study by Zillow indicated that being near a Starbucks had a noticeably positive impact on house values. Given that Starbucks are usually co-located with other eateries this could well have been simply an indicator that people want to live near eateries not necessarily Starbucks.

Rush Line — Walking Tour 29 Sep

RushLine

The Rush Line is a transit corridor between Forest Lake (or Hinckley) and St Paul Union Depot that will be going through White Bear and other NE communities.

They are currently evaluating rail vs bus alternatives for this corridor and looking for input from residents and potential users. They are holding a walking tour on September 29 for those interested. If you have any thoughts on this you should let your voice be heard.

There are two major goals of the Rush Line; provide a good transit alternative for residents northeast and north of the metro area and reduce traffic and increases in traffic on 35E and 61.

Based on my experience in Europe and reading a bunch of studies over the years, my preference is for rail. This is not a preference that comes easily given my libertarian tendencies and dislike of taxes and spending. Transportation though is the one area where government spending is necessary.

While a bus line would be less expensive, it would very likely not accomplish our goals, particularly long-term. Rail provides a more reliable service and a smoother and more comfortable ride, and is overall much more appealing and attracts higher ridership. Rail works particularly well for commuters since it is much easier to work (for work or personal) on a train than a bus so the time spent on rail is not felt wasted so much as time on a bus or in a car.

Communities with nearby commuter or tram rail connections will also usually hold their home values much better than those with only bus service. This will become increasingly important in the Twin Cities residential housing market.

More Info: http://www.rushline.org

Can We Keep It Like This ?

LM601 1000 2

What a wonderful weekend along Hodgson Rd. There was a bit less traffic than usual but best of all is that most of the traffic was going much slower. Even with the rough road surface it was much quieter and riding along the path to Paninos or Village Scoop a bit more pleasant.

It can be better than it was before

While we can’t keep it like it is, we can make it better than it was before.

According to Ramsey County, Hodgson had 12′ travel lanes and 7′ shoulders prior to this project and the plan is to re-strip the same way.

Road Fatalities US vs EU

Reducing a lane from 12′ to 11′ reduces average speeds by about 3 mph. That doesn’t sound like much, but that average mostly comes from the fastest drivers. Someone who normally drives the speed limit won’t usually change their speed with 11′ lanes, but someone who normally drives 55 mph along here may reduce their speed to perhaps 48 mph.

Reducing lane width from 12′ to 10′ reduces speeds by an average of 7 mph. Again, mostly from greater reductions by the fastest drivers.

It’s also important to note that speeds usually increase after a road has been repaved due to the smoother surface which makes doing something to reduce speeds along here and similar resurfacing projects that much more important.

Road Fatalities Children

Our road designs put our children at much greater risk than road designs used in Europe.

Our roads are about 2 to 3 times as dangerous as Europe’s roads. We have the most dangerous roads of all developed countries (though Greece occasionally gives us a run for our money). Several studies have placed part of the blame on our very wide lanes that increase speeding and decrease driver attention. A road like this in Europe would likely have 2.85 to 3 meter lane widths (9’4″ – 9’9″). They believe and have shown that to be much safer since it helps with speeds and more important, drivers pay better attention when lane widths are narrower.

Narrower lanes and slower speeds are also much better for pedestrians and others needing to cross the road since the crossing distances are less and because traffic is a bit slower and better able to stop when someone is crossing. I’ve seen a few close calls for people crossing to the path from Wildflower Way and I’d guess there may be similar issues with the new developments on the east side of Hodgson.

Re-striping to 11′ or 10′ would reduce speeds, particularly of the fastest drivers, increase safety, improve driver attention, and reduce road noise. All of which will make life more pleasant for everyone.

This is not a silver bullet that alone will make our roads and paths safer but is one critical element.

If you think that this is important, contact Ramsey County Commissioner Blake Huffman.

blake.huffman@co.ramsey.mn.us

Twitter: @BlakeCHuffman
Web: blakehuffman.com

Ramsey County Board Office
Room 220 Court House
15 W. Kellogg Blvd.
St. Paul, MN 55102

Tel:  651.266.8362

Fax: 651.266.8370

 

The Best Bicycle Ride in Vadnais Heights

bicycle vadnais heights

As you’ve likely guessed, I’m not a huge fan of bicycling in Vadnais Heights, at least compared to places like Shoreview that have relatively good and safe paths to ride on and much safer intersections.

bicycle vadnais heightsThat said, I will nearly always ride my bicycle for trips of one or two miles like to Festival Foods or Target which is a fairly safe and enjoyable ride from my house.

Having done so once, I will not cross 35E to get to Perkins or anything else on that side, it is simply too dangerous in my opinion.

bicycle vadnais heights panera bread

bicycle vadnais heights panera breadHowever, there are times when I quite enjoy riding in Vadnais Heights. Early on Saturday and Sunday mornings before there is much or any traffic on the roads is my favorite. I enjoy riding to Dunn Bros for a cappuccino or sometimes my wife and I will ride to Panera for breakfast. What’s great about our Dutch city bikes is that they’re easy to just hop on a go when we decide to do this.

It’s not The Netherlands or Copenhagen, or even Shoreview, but it does make for a great way to start the day.

Calhoun Cycle now stocks Gazelle

Populair g2 1385 detail

Calhoun Cycle in south Minneapolis is now stocking the Gazelle Populair which is a full-on Dutch city bike. They have both step-thru and step-over models with 8-speed Shimano internal geared rear hubs and hub dynamo’s to power the lights. It has a ring-lock (grey below the seat) that makes locking up easy (as long as you’re not in a high crime area).

This is a great bike for hoping on in whatever you’re wearing for a quick ride around town, to dinner, school, the grocery store (get some panniers while you’re there for carrying lots of stuff), or along the Gateway trail.

Personally I prefer Azor, Batavus, or Workcycles to Gazelle. I find the Gazelle’s to be a bit cramped feeling with the seat and handlebars a bit too close together. That’s personal preference though. From a quality standpoint I think Gazelle is likely just as good as those others and rides nicely.

Note that these do not have a steering damper or even the usual attachment point for one nor do they have the usual mount on the left fork for a light when using a front rack such as a removable Steco (I believe the Gazelle front rack, which is not removable, does include a mount). These also do not include a Hebie center stand which you may want to order.

Helmets

This is a work in progress. I will continue to add to this and make corrections as I have time. 

The focus on wearing helmets has, in my opinion, been quite detrimental—to our health, safety, and environment. It has taken the focus off of far more important safety measures such as building safe protected bikeways and it has discouraged people from riding which is far more detrimental to our health than any harm from not wearing a helmet.

——

There has been some controversy over my recent comments about wearing or not wearing bicycle helmets.  Here are a few very quick (or not so) points on this.

Firstly, I do not encourage people to not wear bicycle helmets. However, people should know the realities of bicycle helmet effectiveness. They should know that it is OK and safe to ride without a helmet. And especially to do so rather than choose not to ride because they don’t have a helmet, can’t find it, or simply don’t want to wear it.

People should have the freedom to ride a bicycle without being berated for whichever they choose. As we’ll see, both are quite logical choices, and whichever someone chooses likely makes little difference beyond personal preference and fashion.

Our intuition tells us that foam bicycle helmets should be effective in preventing traumatic brain injury (TBI), the reason that we are told to wear them. In reality this has not shown to be the case.

Three Big Grains Of Salt 

Gbikes82

We are often told to take something we hear with a few grains of salt. Wise advice. Here are a three grains of salt for bicycle helmets.

1 – Bicycle riders in The Netherlands, Denmark, and elsewhere do not wear helmets. And yet, with all of their bicycle riding, they do not have higher rates of Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI). In fact, they live longer and healthier lives than we do.

2 – Of the studies of population-wide increases in helmet use, none that I am aware of have shown a corresponding causal decrease in rates of TBI. They consistently show no statistically significant change[1].

3 – Head injuries as a percent of all bicycle injuries are the same in The Netherlands (32% of all injuries) with zero helmet use as in the U.S. (33%) with high helmet use. Minnesota, with very high helmet use, has an even higher rate of 37%.

If bicycle helmets were effective then these should not be. Everything we hear in the U.S. tells us that The Netherlands, Denmark, and similar helmetless countries should have massive numbers of head injuries and fatalities or that if people start wearing helmets fatalities will decrease. Yet neither of these has proven true.

The big smoking gun though is #3 because that takes all other factors, such as Europe’s safer roads and drivers, out of the equation. It looks only at helmet effectiveness and indicates that helmets have no overall affect on reducing brain injury.

Now, let’s look a bit more in depth.

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