Courtyards in architecture need to make a comeback. Courtyards used to be very common as far back as the Neolithic period of the Stone Age, and were present in the homes of the wealthy and the not so wealthy alike. This style of home is known as the “Courtyard House”. You can bet all architects in Michigan know about the Courtyard House. The Courtyard House was common in urban areas since the interior space was protected by the house structure. Residents did many activities in the courtyard: cooking, working, playing, gardening, etc. In ancient times, courtyards served several more functional purposes than they might today, although I would argue the purposes are just as important today as they were back then. Courtyards in history were important architectural features because they did five key things: let in light, aided in ventilation, helped separate spaces, helped connect spaces, and allowed for interaction with nature.
The type of courtyard I am referring to here is an interior courtyard, one that is surrounded on at least seventy-five percent by structure. Today, we sometimes think of courtyards as simply outdoor spaces, but traditionally courtyards were strictly openings in the middle of a building’s floor plan.
Courtyards are vastly useful and effective for letting in natural light. Imagine a room in the center of your house, surrounded by windows on all sides and visible by every room that it touches. This kind of space open to the sky allows sunlight to easily pour in through the windows of each room connected by the courtyard. It practically doubles the natural light in every one of those rooms! All architects in Michigan will tell you natural lighting is better for you than artificial lighting.
Courtyards also aid in ventilation of the house, for both cooling and increasing fresh air. If you have ever experienced cross ventilation by opening two windows on opposite sides of a room, you know to what I am referring. Having a courtyard in your home means all rooms touching the courtyard have the potential for utilizing this cross ventilation because both sides of all of those rooms could have windows. So not only do you increase the natural light in your home, but you keep it from overheating as well. This is a characteristic of what architects in Michigan know to be passive heating and cooling–using natural methods to achieve temperature control instead of relying on your furnace or air conditioner to heat or cool your home.
Central interior courtyards can also act as a separation from different types of spaces in your home, such as living and bedrooms. When designing a house, architects in Michigan use their knowledge of the basic division of public and private: on one side of the house, a living room or kitchen, and on the other, bedrooms and other private areas. You would not want your kitchen adjacent to your bedroom or your master bathroom! Having a space in the center of your house allows each surrounding room to receive the benefits of the courtyard, without forcing those types of rooms to be right next to each other. This means you can easily control access to the courtyard and the rooms it touches when entertaining guests.
In addition to separating spaces, courtyards can also help connect those spaces. Instead of having to walk across the entire house to get from your dining or living room at one end to your master bedroom at the other, instead, you can simply walk from the kitchen through the courtyard and right into your bedroom if you desire. Think of the courtyard as a functional outdoor hallway; instead of being long, narrow, and lacking windows, it is an open air, usable space. Again, courtyards allow for a more fluid connection of spaces without disturbing the delineation of public versus private space.
The last benefit of interior courtyards is their ability to allow for interaction with nature. Obviously, by creating an interior open air courtyard you are allowing nature into another side of your house. Courtyards can be completely paved, or entirely greenscaped. Some people allow trees to grow in their courtyards, others plant gardens. Imagine an interior patio space with a fire pit or a small pond. Some courtyards are small enough to fit a single chair or bench for intimate meditation, others large enough for entertaining guests. Another thing to think about is the health benefits of accessible outdoor space. Especially in urban contexts, it is more and more difficult to find outdoor space. Studies have shown we as a people are psychologically healthier when we spend time outside. Architects in Michigan are always trying to find ways to incorporate more outdoor living space into their designs. Interior courtyards can bring the outdoors inside, in a sense, and make them more accessible.
Today, you can find more instances of large, sliding or folding patio doors that open the house up in a way that is almost like removing an entire wall. If you incorporate these types of doors into your home, connecting your living spaces with your courtyard, you essentially create an entirely open floor plan, blending the outdoors with the indoors. These types of spaces are great for entertaining large groups of people, or just enjoying on your own.
Why do you need a courtyard if you have other outside space? The way architects in Michigan typically design houses today makes it more difficult to facilitate private outdoor areas. Usually our front and back yards, especially in suburban areas, are pretty open to the public, or at least to our neighbors. If your back yard butts up to the house’s back yard behind you, that means you are basically surrounded on all sides with the public eye. Interior courtyards carve out a space in the middle of your home that is only accessible to you, the homeowner, which means it is entirely private. You can create an outdoor oasis and share all the benefits of natural light, ventilation, and the control of your privacy with the rest of your home.