How it Works: Building an Outside Shower

As great as it is to be naked outside, that probably should be kept between you and nature. Some people want to be totally enclosed. Others want at least a glimpse of the landscape.

All right, let’s cut right to the chase.

The reason we love outdoor showers is not because they’re a practical way to wash the sand off when you come back from the beach. No, the reason we love them is because they give us permission to get naked outdoors. And don’t pretend you don’t know what I’m talking about.

Mark Hutker, principal and founder of Hutker Architects in Vineyard Haven, Falmouth, and Nantucket, practically insists that his clients include an outside shower in their plans. He calls them cultural connectors, a way for people to connect to the bare essentials of nature here.

The first thing you need to do is determine the right location for the shower. Mark will tell you, rule number one is that it has to get sun. But more precisely, it should be exposed to sun during the times you use it the most. So let’s say you want to take a shower in the morning after you work out, then it should be on the east side of your house. If you want to use it later in the day after you come back from the beach, then the west side is the best bet. You never want a shower to be on the north side.

When it comes time to build the shower, the first thing you have to address is the runoff. If you want to go strictly by the book, the runoff, or gray water as it’s called because it contains soap residue, should be cycled through the septic system. But the dirty little secret of outside showers – without getting into the chapter and verse of Title 5 laws – is that this is not enforced very often. Which is not to say that the runoff should just drain onto your yard. Mark says that, assuming the soil is sandy, if you dig a four-by-four-by-four-foot pit and fill it with one-inch-size gravel, that will allow the gray water to percolate into the soil, and no harm is done.

Once you have the drainage under control, you should decide what kind of material you want to use to build your shower decking. Mark typically recommends using mahogany or ipe deck boards. Ipe is indigenous to South America and is extremely rot-resistant; it can last around forty years. And like mahogany, it won’t splinter. Mark’s only caveat is that you should use ipe certified by the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) to make sure it comes from a sustainable source. You don’t want to use fir or pressure-treated decking because the boards will eventually splinter and cup.

But you don’t necessarily have to be tied into using wood decking either. One alternative is bluestone pavers spaced a few inches apart with pea stones in between so the water can drain. In the past, Mark has also used historic millstones; the water drains through the hole in the middle. One nice thing about stones is that they warm up in the sun and feel nice underfoot.

When it comes to hardware, Mark recommends keeping it simple, or as he puts it, “keeping it Yankee.” A basic bronze fixture with two simple knobs or levers – one for hot and one for cold – is foolproof and lasts forever. As for the shower head, that’s really a matter of personal preference. It can be totally Yankee or something more exotic, such as a rain shower head, but whatever you use, Mark recommends you take the head off for the winter (with a little plumbing tape over the pipe) and store it inside where it will be much happier.

That is, unless you’re going to use your shower in the winter. If you plumb your shower so that after each use the water can be shut off from the inside, you protect the pipes from freezing and get to use your shower during all four seasons. Don’t laugh – there’s something magical about taking a hot shower at night when it’s snowing.

So now let’s talk about privacy because as great as it is to be naked outside, that probably should be kept between you and nature. Mark says that his goal is to make the shower experience as open as possible, as long as it’s comfortable for the client. Some people want to be totally enclosed with walls above their height so no one even knows they’re in there. Others want to be screened from people but open to a view of the landscape.

Mark firmly believes that unless you’re trying to block the view from a second-floor window, you should never put a roof or ceiling on your outdoor shower. It defeats the whole purpose of being outside and at one with nature, and it keeps the sun from drying the shower out, which can lead to mildew.
As for the actual enclosure materials, this is an area where you can get creative. Mark has used mahogany, cedar, canvas, teak, stainless-steel mesh, nylon rope, and cedar lattice. You can even incorporate landscaping into your plans.

“Sometimes we design the outdoor shower,” explains Mark, “so that it’s open on three sides to a planted area with some seating and some herbs and flowers, and only the fourth side is enclosed for privacy.”

You can also think about having your shower being detached from your house.

“Many times we do outdoor showers that aren’t connected to the house,” Mark explains, “which is good because you’re not against a one- or two-story fa├žade that’s kind of leaning over you. You can also site it so that you’re almost always in the sun, no matter what time of day, and you’re closer to being naked in a field – which is pretty dramatic and exciting.”