A secret place

A secret place

The Grotto Sauna is a feat of old-world craftsmanship and new-world sustainability
There’s something striking and arresting – and in this case, mysterious – about the all-wood Grotto Sauna.

All we know – because the owner has requested complete anonymity – is that this sculpted place designed by the PARTISANS group of Toronto is located somewhere at the northwest edge of an island on Georgian Bay.

“Unfortunately, the exact location, budget and client identity are strictly confidential,” says architect Alex Josephson, the co-founder of PARTISANS.

But there’s no mystery about what makes this sculpted space such a sophisticated exercise in building science. Inspired by an Italian grotto – a secret water-filled cave concealed within unsuspecting rock formations – the design pays homage to the extremities of the Northern Ontario landscape.
“Wood is a part of the Canadian ethos and, inevitably, a part of our lives here,” says Josephson, “especially through our cultural connection to the land, the true north, strong and free. It has been an incredibly interesting learning experience.”


The Grotto Sauna is a highly sustainable structure that established a successful methodology for addressing the challenges of building ambitious architecture in remote and environmentally sensitive regions.

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 emulates Lake Huron’s waves and mirrors the Precambrian shield—a soft, undulating rock surface that has been worn over billions of years.

“We believe that wood is a timeless material that lives beyond trend or fashion,” says Josephson. “In that sense, I believe that sophisticated wood design resonates as a sustainable material purely in its lifespan and resiliency.

“Our office was very committed to using local wood for the grotto, so it was sourced from a Northern Ontario forest that was slated for clear cutting. We made sure that our trees were part of a reforestation program.”

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