Posted by Jonathan Maus (Publisher/Editor) on October 27th, 2017 at 11:44 am
Powered by leg muscles and fire, the SaunaVelo is the manifestation of many passions for southeast Portland resident Simon Lyle. At its core, the cedar wood structure that sits atop a bicycle trailer is simply a place to warm up. But it’s also a mobile community builder. After all, it’d be difficult to enjoy its warmth — usually done wearing only your skivvies — without getting to know the people huddled next to you.
For Lyle, the 37-year old builder who grew up near the Buckman neighborhood of inner southeast Portland where I met him yesterday, the SaunaVelo is a fun side-project. But it’s also much more than that.
“I’m obsessed with old wooden boats,” Lyle shared with me as we sat on the long benches inside the SaunaVelo. Several years ago he came across a photo of a sauna bike built in Prague, Czechoslovakia and thought to himself, “I could build that!”
As he began to draw up plans and gather the parts and materials for the subframe, ribbing, and wood stove, Lyle began to realize that a small structure with heat could have other uses. As a kid he hung out at St. Francis Park on SE Stark and 11th where his dad worked for 20 years as the maintenance supervisor for the church and apartment block that used to serve thousands of homeless Portlanders. “Witnessing how those people lived was a huge wake-up call for me,” Lyle shared.
Oops! This is where he banged the side on a bollard while biking on the Esplanade.
“My favorite comment was when someone said, ‘I don’t even know what that is, but I like it.'”
— Simon Lyle
A product of Portland Public Schools, Lyle got into the building trades and was mentored by local housing developer (and Portland Planning Commissioner) Eli Spevak of Orange Splot LLC. Now co-owner of his own construction company (along with his brother Rion), Lyle specializes in residential projects, tiny homes and accessory dwelling units (ADUs). One of his current projects is the Clackamas County Veteran’s Village. “At first I wanted a sauna,” he said yesterday, “But I also wanted a solution for sleeping in the streets.” Staying warm in a tiny house is tricky because insurance companies don’t allow heating elements, so Lyle hopes the heating lessons he’s learning with the SaunaVelo can be applied to other projects down the road.
At about four-feet-wide by-six feet tall, the SaunaVelo just barely fits through the bollards on the Eastbank Esplanade path. Lyle pointed out repairs he made to the right corner after smashing into one of them over the summer. With an estimated weight of about 200-300 pounds it has an 800 pound capacity. Lyle said eight people squeezed into it at its debut event at Pedalpalooza over the summer.
The roof of the pod looks like the hull of a boat with overlapping cedar shingles glued together and held in place by ribs. The small stove was made from an old air compressor and is fed via a door on the outside of the pod above the trailer hitch. A steel pipe welded to the stove sticks out the top and acts as the chimney (and as an “open” sign when smoking that draws people near). Lyle made the trailer bed himself and purchased the wheels and hitch mechanism from Bikes at Work. He tows it with his five-speed Jamis Commuter bike, although he’s looking to upgrade to electric-assist to help him pedal it further afield.
Lyle wants to build more SaunaVelos. This first one cost him about $2,000 in labor and materials and he figures he could bring the price down considerably on future versions. He envisions people might rent one or perhaps even do a “Sauna share” with friends where everyone pays dues like a co-op. And with Portland’s new approach to RVs and tiny homes, a structure like the SaunaVelo can be legally lived-in as long as its parked on private property.
Legalities aside, the SaunaVelo is anything but private. Like many of his creations, Lyle said its design was partly influenced by the work of people like Mark Lakeman who founded the City Repair Project and Communitecture. Community building through small-scale architecture is at the heart of Lakeman’s legacy.
“At the root this is about getting to know your neighbors,” he shared. “I’ll fire it up on Fridays and everyone in the neighborhood will gather around it. My favorite comment was when someone said, ‘I don’t even know what that is, but I like it.'”
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