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Building courtyards that work for your home

Last Updated Apr 19, 2017 · Written by Rob Schneider

After hundreds of years of neglect, courtyards are back in style. It's well past time for them, too. Courtyards help keep your home cooler and provide an intimate space for working or relaxing. Courtyards got their start in ancient Rome, but have been popular in the Mediterranean for centuries.

Many parts of Australia have Mediterranean climates, but courtyards have not been popular here. We adopted the front and back yard style of building and neglected to consider the benefits of courtyards. While it's true they require space to work, it's worth working with your architect to create a courtyard if you're building. Apartment complexes and commercial complexes can also benefit from courtyards.

  1. What is a Courtyard? 

  2. Why Build a Courtyard?

  3. What Makes a Great Courtyard?

  4. Elements of a Courtyard

  5. Building Courtyards that Work for You

What is a Courtyard?

What is the difference between a patio or garden and a courtyard? The basic difference is that a courtyard is surrounded or partly surrounded by walls or buildings. Most patios are open to the backyard and gardens may be surrounded by fencing, but aren't really courtyards.

Building a courtyard

Courtyards are in vogue again because they offer an outdoor space that is accessible from many rooms of the house. Because a house surrounds or partially surrounds a courtyard you can see and enjoy a courtyard from a bedroom, living room, dining room or kitchen.

A classic courtyard is a paved area with planted areas in the centre or sides of the courtyard. It may also have garden arches to provide shade. It can be square or rectangular and provide a thoroughfare or be enclosed. The size of a courtyard is usually determined by the size of the surrounding buildings. Even a small home can have a compact courtyard that may have only enough room for a bench or small garden.

Building a courtyard

The size of a courtyard isn't as important as its ambience. Courtyards are meant to be natural, quiet spaces. A small courtyard may only have room for some pot plants or hanging plants and a small table. A large courtyard in a commercial space may be big enough for dozens of people to wander and relax.

Why Build a Courtyard?

As mentioned above, one reason to build a courtyard is to be able to enjoy it from any room of the house, even if you're indoors. Courtyards are arguably more expensive to build because you have more exterior walls and windows than a traditional home, but they are worth the extra expense. A courtyard helps keep a home cooler in the summer and warmer in the winter, reducing energy costs.

Why build a courtyard

You don't need to adhere to the strict definition of a courtyard to create a courtyard-like atmosphere in your home. A courtyard requires a wider block of land than a traditional Australian block and you may need to accommodate your courtyard to your block size. The important thing is to create an intimate outdoor space that serves your needs.

What Makes a Great Courtyard?

A commercial courtyard is a space within the complex where people can mingle, enjoy the outdoors or dine in an alfresco setting. In an apartment complex, a courtyard may be a green thoroughfare that improves the appearance of the complex.

In the home, a courtyard must be built to accommodate the size of the property without sacrificing internal space. It can be a traditional courtyard surrounded by the house. If this is impossible, it can be an enclosed area next to the house.

A greta courtyard

A courtyard should be an outdoor area that feels like it is part of the house. Depending on your climate, it can be covered, shaded or left open to the elements. Our Outdoor Living Ideas pages have dozens of images of outdoor spaces that feel like a traditional courtyard.  

Elements of a Courtyard

Traditionally, courtyards had outdoor pavers. Pavers can be ideal for a courtyard. You can choose any type of paver that works for you. Your courtyard can be modern or rustic depending on the pavers you choose. Lighter coloured pavers will make a small courtyard appear larger.

Outdoor courtyard

If you have an outdoor courtyard, you can choose rustic or freeform pavers. If you have a larger courtyard, you may want to use more than one type of paver to break up the possible monotony of a single paver.

Outdoor table and courtyard

Pavers were the traditional choice, but you can also use timber decking or combine timber decking with pavers to create a multi-layered courtyard.

different materials for courtyards

Your flooring material is one consideration, but a courtyard is not complete without other elements. Plants help keep a courtyard cooler. This has been known for centuries and is one reason for the emerging popularity of courtyards. Researchers at the University of Seville (Spain) recently proved that a Mediterranean courtyard is cooler than street temperature.

Depending on the size and layout of your courtyard, you can install low retaining walls, pots or even a vertical garden. Your plants will cool your courtyard and by extension, your house. They will also provide a lush outdoor atmosphere you'll enjoy from inside the house or while you're relaxing in your courtyard.

outdoor stairs

If you have enough space, consider adding a water feature. Your water feature can be a waterfall next to a wall, a central fountain or a more natural water feature. It can even be a shallow pool with water plants. A water feature provides you with a focal point and helps cool the air even more.

gardens in courtyards

The other elements of your courtyard will depend on what you want to use your courtyard for. Some courtyards are small gardens while others are spaces for relaxing or entertaining.

Building Courtyards that Work for You

If you're building and your block is large enough, consider installing a traditional courtyard. If you're renovating, you may have to bend the rules a little bit. Create a courtyard feel in your garden. Even if you can't create a traditional courtyard, you can find a space that feels like a courtyard.

One way to create a courtyard is to use the side of your house. Our article, Ways to Turn the Side of Your House Into a Calming Garden Space gives several ideas for creating a courtyard-like atmosphere at the side of your house. If you have enough room, you can create a courtyard outside of your bedroom.

bedroom courtyard

If you do not have enough room for seating, you can install pavers and create a garden at the side of your house.

If you bend the courtyard rules even more, you can create a "courtyard" away from your house. A gazebo near your pool or in your garden won't cool your home, but will make a relaxing space away from your house that might serve you better than a courtyard close to your house.

gazebo courtyard

Building courtyards that work for you depends on your circumstances. You won't regret building a traditional courtyard, but if that's not possible, think of ways you can create a courtyard feeling in your yard. You'll love having an intimate "courtyard" space to enjoy in your yard.

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