Imperfection is perfect

This is how you can recognise a genuine Finnish summer cottage

When a Finn looks for a pleasant hideaway for the fleeting summer, the most important criteria are not modernness, an imposing appearance, let alone new technical solutions or even ones that add practicality. For Finns a summer cottage is a state of being, a quiet symphony of the human mind, where the cottage building plays second fiddle and nature by a lake or in the forest sings the most beautiful solos.

For Finns, a summer cottage means more than just the building they stay in. A summer cottage knows rush hour on a highway; it brings to mind trips to grandma’s house. A summer cottage means lingering in the outhouse, back waters, rowing on a lake, and steam in a hot sauna. A summer cottage is a place to fall asleep on the dock with a book in your lap. This is why the architecture of a summer cottage is rarely ostentatious, perfect or completely refined. Still, this is entirely intentional, since imperfection is exactly what makes summer cottages perfect.

Just enough to do

Those who are mad enough to buy a traditional wooden sail boat for Finnish conditions recognise the following symptoms: first it takes two months to ready the boat for summer, after which it is used for two weeks, and during one of them it is sleeting. Then it’s time to dock the boat for the winter. The annual clock of a summer cottage looks misleadingly similar, but a summer cottage rarely turns into a labour camp.

In early spring, a cottage that sat vacant in the cold for seven months of the year seems like an abandoned house. This means cottages often have a characteristic musty smell, which in a surprising way is linked in the brain to the pleasing scent of perfume and a cosy memory from childhood.

Of course, an old building must be regularly repaired. Many holiday-makers’ days at the cottage are spent in the pursuit of small tinkering. The healing force of tinkering for the soul and body is one of a summer cottage’s most closely guarded secrets. Tinkering is the most carefree form of renovation, which of course does not mean repairs made with bubble gum but does not entail actually starting a task, either. At the cottage, things can in fact be just so-so. Many feel that things are then just right.

More fundamental tasks than tinkering are also traditionally done on your own – or as a voluntary joint effort. Then terraces and grill shelters are slapped together by a group of friend in minutes. This is visible in the buildings’ design – simple, primarily functional solutions. What is old is not repaired until there is truly a need, since old has a good ring to it.

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Indoor areas, where nobody wants to spend their time

People go to the summer cottage to charge their batteries. At the cottage the human body acts like a solar panel; it embraces the sunshine. This is why the first aim in the morning is to get out of the building. During the day, the indoor areas of a summer cottage are only in use on rainy days. This is why a summer hideaway also does not

need an actual living room. For the same reason darkening shades, which in city flats are very important from the standpoint of a good night’s sleep, are rarely used at summer cottages. Finns who have spent the entire winter in darkness wake up at their cottages to sunshine or to the heat created by the sun.

The fact that Finns want to spend their time outdoors is not, though, a vote of no confidence for the cottage. As a modest building the cottage knows its place, too: nights are moments when time is spent with family.

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The shed and outhouse are the property’s most important buildings

A traditional Finnish summer cottage property often includes shack-like, smallish, uninsulated buildings, of which the shed is generally the men’s empire. The shed is a small wooden storage building for storing firewood, tools and fishing tackle. Boat owners often build the shed above and around the boat dock, so the boat can be sheltered and under lock and key, as well.

As an extension of the shed or as a separate shack to prevent odours there is an outhouse – a dry toilet whose Styrofoam seat has been sat on by every Finn. The shed and outhouse almost surely have a black felt roof – and just as surely they are red, brown or green in colour. The outhouse’s interior walls most often have landscape pictures from old calendars, newspaper cuttings and a WC-humour book.

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In days gone by, sauna benches were used for bathing and sleeping

It is very hard to imagine a summer cottage without a wood-heated sauna. During the golden decades of cottage construction, the 1950s and 1960s, cottages were built around a sauna, since summer cottages are located primarily in areas without electricity. The sauna was heated daily, even if there was no need to take a sauna bath, since the warm stone wall provided heat for the cottage for the following day and the sauna stove’s water heater provided hot water. Children also often wound up sleeping on the sauna benches – cottages in those days were quite small.

Today things are different and modern technology has significantly changed the possibilities for building a summer cottage. It is still fairly common for a summer cottage not to have running water or a water closet, not to mention electricity from the national grid. Carrying water in buckets from the lake to the sauna and washing dishes with water heated in the sauna are still important parts of Finnish cottage culture.

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“The age-old landscape remains, stories and story-tellers change”

Construction of new cottages is still popular, although the most popular and well-suited sites for construction on lake shores are already pretty much inhabited. At the same time, general building regulations and environmental norms have been tightened. This is why many prefer to repair what rests on old stone pilings instead of building something new. What is old and modest has become even more popular.

In the old days a sauna could be built on any shore, but now the shores are generally protected from construction. At least old sauna buildings constructed on the waterline do not need to be moved, but in many places new ones may not be built closer than 15 metres from the lake. The regulations aim to preserve idyllic summer cottage landscapes for future generations. As famous Finnish hunting and fishing author Veikko Huovinen wrote: “The age-old landscape remains, only the stories and story-tellers change.” We do not inherit nature from our parents, but borrow it from our children.