You don't have to be shivering in a sandy swimsuit to appreciate an open-air shower. Even landlocked homeowners—stressed-out townies, gritty greenthumbs, suburban soccer dads—are discovering that bathing outdoors is not just practical, it's downright luxurious. That's how architect Howard Backen sees his shower. Every morning, he's out there, lathering up to the sound of birds in his garden and the sight of mountains beyond his home in California's Napa Valley. "It's invigorating when it's cold, it's interesting when it's rainy, and it's incredibly refreshing when it's sunny and hot," he says. Whether the goal is to wash off the day or to commune with nature, there is an outdoor shower for you. The simplest is a foot sprayer hooked to an existing cold-water spigot. The most complicated and expensive is an outdoor shower with cold and hot water, a custom enclosure for privacy, and a built-in changing room for convenience. What's universal about any alfresco shower is that it beckons you outside. And yes, for some, it's also about the exhilaration of being in the backyard in the buff. Here's what you need to know to create the outdoor shower that best suits your naked—or not-so-naked—ambition.
Determining the best location for an outdoor shower depends on how you'll use it. Luke and Allison Babcock put the foot shower at their Sag Harbor, New York, home near the front door so when the couple and their two daughters return from the beach they can spray off the sand before going inside. Others opt for a shower by the pool for a postswim rinse, or close to the back door for the resident athlete just back from a sweaty jog.
The best outdoor showers also take advantage of the natural beauty of the surroundings. For a family in Bridgehampton, N.Y., architect Nick Martin designed a shower with a mahogany enclosure that he situated toward the back of the house to offer views of a rose garden and a farm across the street.
Plumbing can also dictate site. A shower on a deck near the kitchen or bathroom or on a ground-floor patio off the laundry room means you can tap into existing hot- and cold-water lines. One placed in a remote cluster of trees, though appealing, requires digging a trench and running pipe to the destination.
When designing your outdoor shower, consider how much you are willing to expose, and account for the feelings of guests or neighbors. "I encourage people to build with the most modest person in mind," says Ethan Fierro, author of The Outdoor Shower. The most straightforward approach is a freestanding folding screen, which works especially well on a multiuse deck where permanent walls can eat up too much space. For an outdoor shower on a rooftop of a client's home in Washington, D. C., architect Kai Tong designed a roll-up bamboo screen that's high enough for a shield but low enough not to block dramatic views of the capital. The most organic approach draws on the landscape, whether a new privet hedge or an existing curtain of trees. Keep in mind that if trees are deciduous, you may have to wait until late spring for sufficient cover.
A custom wood shower enclosure offers privacy plus flexibility to add built-ins and other amenities. To prevent mold and mildew, be sure the space is well ventilated so it completely dries out after every use. Walls should be secured to corner posts and elevated about a foot off the ground to promote air circulation. And if you decide to add a solid roof, attach it only to the posts, leaving open space above the walls. A sunny location like the poolside spot that designer Beau Clowney selected for a client's shower in Mount Pleasant, South Carolina, will also help dry the enclosure.
Hook up an outdoor shower much like you would an indoor one. If you want both cold and hot running water, This Old House plumbing and heating expert Richard Trethewey recommends adding a pressure-balance valve to prevent scalding. "And for those who live in four-season climates, by far the biggest concern is having the ability to drain pipes when the temperature drops," cautions Richard; water trapped inside can freeze and crack the pipes. Shutoff valves should be located in the house with pipes traveling on a downward slope. An exposed riser and a showerhead that both unscrew, like the gooseneck model Steve Crandall used in a shower he built in Virginia's Blue Ridge Mountains region, ensure that every drop is eliminated.
Drainage is also an issue when the shower is in use. Local building codes vary about the disposal of gray water. But for the most part, outdoor showers simply drain into the ground. A drywell consisting of an earthen pit lined with landscape fabric and filled with gravel can be placed underneath the shower floor to help disperse the flow. More complicated, but required in some locales, is routing wastewater into the sewer system.
For shower floors, walls, and fixtures, choose weather-resistant materials. Enclosures made of pressure-treated wood, cedar, teak, Brazilian ironwood, even salvaged window shutters will hold up well outside. When buying imported wood, look for FSC (Forest Stewardship Council) certification, which means the boards were sustainably harvested. Wood is also suitable for floors, but like most decking materials, it should be treated periodically to prevent mildew and fading. A stone floor requires less maintenance, but be sure to get a type that's comfortable under bare feet, such as bluestone or tumbled river rock.
Beau Clowney recommends bronze or copper fixtures because they develop a natural patina as they age. Brass also works well, but avoid anything too shiny, because the gloss will fade. In seaside locations, where salty air can pit most metals, corrosion-resistant stainless steel with a 304 rating is typically the best choice. To keep stainless looking new, wash it down every couple of weeks with warm soapy water, rinse, and then wipe it dry with a soft cloth.
The amenities you add to your shower will play a big role in how it feels and how frequently you use it. They also add to the price, which ranges from about $200 for a basic hose-connected shower to upward of $20,000 for a lavish bathhouse with a changing area and built-in seating. Among the simplest add-ons are hooks for hanging robes and wet bathing suits, and shelves for shampoo, and extra towels. A slatted teak mat will feel better on your feet than standing directly on a drain. Other options play off the natural setting. Homeowner John Brown used deer antlers as a towel rack in the shower outside his 1920s log cabin in Folly Beach, S.C. And then there are indulgences, such as an oversized rain-style showerhead to amplify the feeling of being out in the elements, outdoor speakers (some are disguised as rocks) to pipe in music, and low-voltage lighting to illuminate an evening shower. But of course, the best amenity of all is nature itself.
All-in-one systems make it simpler than ever to get wet in the wild
Spa Treatment The built-in shower panel (see Image 5) from Rohl can be used indoors or out. It has a glass face and stainless-steel shelves behind for shampoo and soap. An 8-inch rain-style head, hand shower, and three body sprays rinse every bit of you. (About $4,731, Rohl)
Simple Spray The portable outdoor shower from Orvis has an oversized stainless-steel head that rises from a tower made of nyatoh, a weather-resistant wood. The unit, which hooks up to a garden hose, also has a built-in soap dish and towel hook. (About $279, Orvis)
Sun Fueled The lacquered steel Solar Shower tower relies on the sun to warm cold water from your garden hose. A built-in combination energy collector panel and storage tank can heat 5 ½ gallons of water in less than two hours. (About $379, SPP)
Mostly Modern The VIZA wall-mount shower from Calazzo adds a stylized look to your outdoor bathing area. It has a sleek one-piece stainless steel body and teak handles. The shower can be plumbed or hooked up to a garden hose with an adapter. (About $899, Calazzo)
Do-It-All The Water Valet from Rittenhouse has a sink for washing hands, tools, and vegetables; a hand-crank reel for coiling the garden hose; and a shower. Made of stainless steel with brass fittings. (About $2,251, Rittenhouse)