By Annie Thornton
When a lilac tree died in Sloan Schang's yard in Portland, Ore., last summer, it left behind a blank corner. It also provided him with an opportunity. A secluded backyard spa appealed to Schang, a writer and creative director, but the $6,000 bill required for the necessary electrical work and a new hot tub sounded less than pleasant.
So Schang constructed his own backyard bathhouse -- in less than a week and for less than a sixth of the price -- with a salvaged claw-foot tub. "My wife was appropriately skeptical when I proposed putting a bathtub in the backyard," he says, "but she was sweet and trusting enough to just let me run with it." Let's see how he did it.
Project at a Glance
What: Backyard bathhouse
Size: 7 by 10 feet
Budget: $750, including labor and materials
Schang cleared out the dead lilac tree as well as some ornamental grasses to prep the site. He dug a hole 5 feet wide, 7 feet long and 6 inches deep, framing it with pressure-treated 2-by-6s. He tightly packed 1/4-inch-minus gravel into the pad to prevent the cast iron tub from sinking. The tub sits atop the compacted gravel without additional anchoring.
The deck is framed with pressure-treated 4-by-4s, resting lengthwise on the gravel. The decking itself is recycled cedar fence boards left over from another home improvement project; Schang cut and nailed them directly to the 4-by-4s. While he says the deck was level and secure already, he additionally anchored it with foot-long garden stakes, pounded to the ground and bracketed to the deck frame.
The claw-foot tub was a steal at $100, and the catalyst for this backyard project. It was already in great condition, only requiring an application of paint. Because it's protected from the elements by the pergola, Schang didn't prep the tub in any other way.
He hired a plumber to install a new exterior hot water bib, tied into existing pipes in the couple's basement laundry room. Often it's possible to replace an exterior hose bib with one that can tie into a hot water line, but that wasn't an option here. Schang was happy to pass off this portion of the project. "If there's something you're not comfortable doing yourself -- like plumbing, for me," he says, "absolutely hire a professional or enlist an experienced friend. The peace of mind is worth the extra time and cost."
Schang ran a long rubber hot-water hose 60 feet from the exterior hot water faucet to the tub site. He concealed the hose in mature landscaping rather than burying it.
The hose rests on a cedar stake; the flow is controlled with a single-handled faucet. The water temperature is controlled from the bib at the side of the house. "We rarely ever use the cold tap, except in the summer when we use it as a cool-off pool with our son - and generally just fill it with straight hot water," he says. On colder nights the water stays warm for 20 or 30 minutes, longer in summer.
Schang sealed the overflow hole and previous faucet holes with cork so that he could fill the tub entirely.
The tub drains into a 15-foot-long ABS drain pipe, extending above-ground out into the planting beds. Like the hose, the pipe is concealed by plants and evenly drains onto the vegetation through perforations.
For backyard privacy and shelter, Schang built a pergola that's 7 feet wide, 10 feet long and 8 feet tall.
"If you've ever built a fence or a deck, you can handle this," he says.
If this is your first home improvement project, though, be careful, be thorough and don't rush through it.
"All I can say is measure, measure, measure," Schang advises.
Here's How You Can Build a Pergola the Way He Did:
1. Measure and dig the locations for the four posts.
2. If you're sloping the roof, cut the rear posts to length.
3. Set the posts and concrete in 2-foot-deep holes.
4. Cut and hang the outside box frame for the roof. (Schang bolted heavy lag bolts directly into the post.)
5. Cut and hang the joists. (Schang used using joist hanger brackets.)
6. Cut sheets of corrugated metal roofing to the right size using heavy tin snips, then attach them to the joists and frame them with screws.
Schang built and designed the light fixture himself. He drilled a field of holes in the base of a soap box he bought on Etsy.com and stapled a string of lights to poke through the holes in the box. Schang calls the light "a cross between an old-timey Lite Brite and a kind of light shower." String lights already drape the perimeter of the yard, so Schang only needed to attach an extension cord.
"Night soaks are quiet and peaceful," he says, "and on clear nights we get glimpses of the stars through the trees." One of his favorite things about the tub is how drastically the experience transitions from day to night. "In the morning and late afternoon, the tub gets some choice moments of direct sunlight, and birds and squirrels are constantly popping in to see what's going on."
"The result has exceeded both of our expectations," he says, "and I can't ever imagine getting tired of this space and the simple magic of an outdoor soak. It's all somehow rustic and luxurious at the same time, very Swiss Family Robinson."
Structure and decking -- $225:
- Six 10-foot lengths of 4-by-4 pressure-treated wood posts for the pergola and deck frame
- Eight 8-foot lengths of outdoor 2-by-6s for the roof frame
- Six bags of easy-mix concrete for the posts
- Three sheets of corrugated metal roofing
- Bamboo privacy shade
- Ten 5-foot-long cedar fence boards for the decking
- 20 cubic feet of 1/4-inch-minus gravel
- Decorative river rock
Plumbing -- $475 (including hired labor):
- Hose rated for hot water
- Faucet to control flow at the tub (mounted on a cedar stake)
- Faucet to control water at the side of the house
- Overflow corks
- ABS drain pipe
- Claw-foot tub
Light fixture -- $50:
- Soap crate
- Strand of Christmas lights
- Extension cordOther materials:
- Clear outdoor protective sealer for all wood that's not pressure treated
- Repurposed materials for bath accessories (cedar decking shower caddy, tree stump side table, towel hooks)
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