How Outdoor Showers Became a Staple of Modest Coastal Homes

published Jun 4, 2021
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Credit: Madeline Bilis
An outdoor shower on Cape Cod

A few summers during my teenage years, my parents rented the same house on Cape Cod for family vacations. It was walking distance in one direction to the tidal pools of Paine’s Creek Beach, and in another to Kate’s Fried Seafood and Ice Cream. I treasure those memories, but there’s one thing I remember most fondly from back then: taking a shower. My family’s rental, like many on the Cape, had an outdoor shower.

The setup was merely a faucet protruding from an exterior wall in the backyard, the scene shielded from view by weathered stockade fencing. It had a door with a self-latching gate, bedecked with something nautically shaped — an anchor or a whale’s tail, if I recall — on which to hang a towel. Sometimes there would be daddy long legs climbing around near the top of the wooden walls or along the sides of the concrete platform I stood on, but I didn’t mind.

An outdoor shower feels luxurious, though it’s really quite basic. It has the added benefit of sun on your skin, and usually, a light breeze. It also seems a bit illicit: usually I’d wear my salty bathing suit into the shower and strip down in the stream of fresh water, leaping across the backyard when I was done in nothing but a towel. The true beauty of this beach house amenity — common on Cape Cod but also a thing from Atlantic Canada to the Caribbean — is that an outdoor shower is practical, affordable, and easy to install.

Lisa D’Amato is a Cape Cod resident and real estate agent with William Raveis. Many houses she shows, particularly those in neighborhoods within walking distance to the ocean or a pond, are equipped with an outdoor shower. Picture the traditional Cape Cod style: when these houses were first built, the single-story, symmetrical structures lacked indoor plumbing. As technology advanced, many Capes remained summer dwellings, so homeowners never bothered with a full bathroom. Some seasonal homes still don’t have an indoor shower to this day, D’Amato says.

That’s not usually the case, but no homeowner wants sandy feet and bathing suits clogging up their plumbing with silt. D’Amato discusses outdoor showers with nearly every client, she says. “If there’s no outdoor shower, we talk about where you could put it.” 

Credit: Lisa D'Amato

The only requirement for installing one is access to running water. “It’s very easy for a plumber to hook up [a shower head] when there’s already a bathroom close by,” D’Amato says. The outdoor shower doesn’t have to be located near existing plumbing, either, with the modern convenience of flexible water supply tubing, available at most home improvement stores. This seemingly upscale amenity, imbued with some good old-fashioned Yankee thrift, is a bona fide staple of modest coastal homes.

Some outdoor showers are built above dry wells, but others simply drain into the landscape’s naturally sandy soil. There are environmental considerations and rules to follow when soap and shampoo are involved, but local officials tend to be lenient. Regarding a law requiring gray water to flow into a septic system, a Nantucket health official told the Cape Cod Times, “It’s one of those policies that no one enforces because everyone has an outdoor shower.”

A concrete slab to stand on, or waterproof decking; lighting, even walls — these are all extras that improve the outdoor shower experience. D’Amato has a propane heater that she moves from her deck into her outdoor shower enclosure after patio season; she enjoyed showering en plein air into December last year, she says.

Credit: Martha Gruhn

But she’s also seen some fancy setups. A friend in Barnstable, Massachusetts, has a koi pond with stepping stones leading to their drain-equipped shower, complete with a decorative water feature flowing down a rock wall. Imagine rinsing off in a waterfall, beneath the stars. Now that would be a memorable end to a beach day.