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2016 MCHAP.emerge

Grotto Sauna


Georgian Bay, Canada

August 2014




MCM2001 Inc. (Wood and Metal Fabricators) Moses Structural Engineers Inc. (Engineering) G2J Design (Lighting) Building Science Consulting Inc. (Facade Systems)



Jonathan Friedman, OAA, MRAIC, AIA Intl. Assoc., LEED GA, M.Arch, BES


Perched at the northwest edge of an island in Georgian Bay, the Grotto Sauna is a sculpted space, sensual experience, and sophisticated exercise in building science. The craggy island sits in the midst of some of Canada’s most rugged and striking wilderness. It was paramount to build a structure that respected and communicated with its natural surroundings. A simple but dignified exterior built from charred cedar prepared using the traditional Japanese Shou Sugi Ban method conveys a weathered appearance; it’s as if the building has been hidden in plain sight for centuries. By contrast, the warm, curved interior simultaneously emulates Lake Huron’s waves and mirrors the Precambrian shield—a soft, undulating rock surface that has been worn over billions of years. The luminous glow of the interior wood enhances the sunkissed sauna experience, while the pre-aged exterior veils the intimacy of that experience from the world. The rocky and remote conditions posed substantial logistical challenges that required inventive solutions. In order to understand and work with the site’s rigorous requirements, we conducted a 3D laser scan of the rock; this provided a meticulously accurate blueprint from which to generate physical and digital models of our designs. Georgian Bay is renowned for being one of the best places in the world to enjoy the sunset. The 3D scans additionally enabled us to optimize the orientation of the structure in the rock so as to maximize views of the setting sun and the tree-fringed sky.


Georgian Bay is one of Canada’s most picturesque and pristine ecologies. When the clients commissioned us to build a sauna at the water’s edge of their island property, we were all agreed that the design would necessarily honour the elemental features of the landscape—the rock, the water, the trees, and the sky. Avid design enthusiasts, the clients insisted on two conditions: they wanted the architecture to tell a story and to be surprised by an out-of-the ordinary design that pushed the boundaries of the traditional sauna. Their desire was to build a special refuge that would become a legacy space for generations to come. The site’s undulating rock face—part of the billions-year-old Precambrian shield—cascades down into the vast expanse of Lake Huron. It immediately conjured an Italian grotto, a secret water-filled cave concealed within unsuspecting rock formations. As the objective started coming into focus­—to tell an architectural story of escape and retreat—we conceived of a design that pays homage to the extremities of the northern Canadian landscape while transporting visitors into an otherworldly sanctum. Some critical questions remained: How could we build a sophisticated and sustainable architecture in a remote location that satisfies urban sensibilities yet takes its cues directly from nature? How do you intensify in a protected region? What does a modern-day rural sanctuary look and feel like? How do you create a space that brings family and community together while simultaneously offering a rejuvenating experience that allows one to recover from the daily grind of urban life?


In many ways, the Grotto Sauna is born out of a rural landscape but influenced by the requirements and standards of the metropolis. It is a highly sustainable structure that establishes a successful methodology for addressing the challenges of building ambitious architecture in ecologically sensitive regions. Prefabricating the sauna components in Toronto facilities reduced the time spent on site and thus the effects of construction on the environment. Site impact was further minimized by the 3D landscape scan, which enabled us to optimize the structure’s positioning in the rock from the outset. The cedar for the interior panels was reclaimed from local forests that were being clear-cut, and all building products were either organically-derived or non-emitting. Energy efficiency was maximized by the high-performance rainscreen enclosure, spray insulation, and tripled-paned glass, while the faucet inside the sauna is fed by lake water. The Grotto is a feat of old-world craftsmanship made possible by cutting-edge software and fabrication technology. The R&D required to innovate a rural typology has since been expanded upon and migrated back into the metropolis in the form of Bar Raval. The sauna nurtured a sensitivity to context—light, form, materiality, community, legacy—that continues to inform our practice and inspires us to create spaces that transport people into unexpected, fantastical realities, be it in rural or metropolitan settings. Designed to seat eighteen people, the Grotto is an ecological sanctuary: it provides an opportunity to reconnect with nature as well as family and friends in a deeply regenerative context.

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