Courtyard Design

Buyers love these spaces for aesthetic reasons, but the benefits of courtyards go well beyond their looks.

By Aram Bassenian, AIA, Bassenian/Lagoni Architects | March 31, 2001


Multiple courtyards such as these in Windward at Crystal Cove work like outdoor rooms, each with distinct functions. The plan shows how exterior spaces relate to the interior of the homes.

I suppose sameness happens in new housing markets everywhere at one point or another. You know the signs: streetscapes look alike, elevations mimic those of the community down the street, floor plans appear to be carbon copies of each other.

On the West Coast in the mid-nineties, we found ourselves hopelessly trapped in sameness—stuck with one formula to design every home. The region’s builders and architects, having just survived one of the worst housing recessions on record, were hesitant to try new things. However, the sameness that pervaded new home design and construction was in itself a market constraint—buyers couldn’t find much to differentiate one community or builder from another.

In an effort to break out of that box, we sought out alternative methods that could be used to create plan differentiation. Our search led us to those older California communities that attracted home buyers as well. There we found the residential architecture that occurred in the early days of California’s growth. These homes expressed a natural affinity toward the Andalusian/Morrish vernacular, and for good reason. There, in the south of Spain, where the climate is identical to that of Southern California, the outside was consistently brought into the house with the prevalent use of courtyards.

Space Extensions
What was new just a decade ago is now one of the hottest trends in new residential design and construction in warm-weather climates and even in some that aren’t. Courtyards add warmth and grace to entries. Internally, they expand living spaces and extend sight lines. When courtyard space occur at side yards, they help draw natural light deep into the core of the home. In the back of the home, courtyard spaces lengthen the perimeter walls, thus allowing additional opportunities for fenestration.

Incorporating courtyard spaces at several recently opened new home communities in each instance solved specific design issues and site challenges.



  • At Evansport, a Lennar community in Huntington Beach, lots are somewhat narrow and the entry occurs deep at the side of the plan. The courtyard, accentuated by a turret, is a pleasant surprise introduction and mitigates a potential negative with new home shoppers.


    Appealing side courtyards on the narrow lots of Evansport by Lennar Homes in Huntington Beach provide buyers with private outdoor space despite the homes’ close proximity to each other.



  • We introduced not one, but two entry courtyards at Windward, a new project at Newport Coast for Richmond American. These two spaces follow a processional sequence. A low wall at the front yard captures the first courtyard, which turns into a private retreat area for the home office. Consumers are then drawn through an intimate archway and emerge into the second courtyard space. This is a more traditional use and it sets the stage for the front door. From this courtyard, a stairwell leads to a studio and a balcony. An outdoor fireplace also is included in this space.

    These courtyard placements in the front can give a home elegance in massing. Instead of projecting forward, the two-story mass now partially lays back behind two layers of single-story architecture and landscaping. The house has a softer and quieter presence on the street.



  • At Santa Luz, an upcoming project at Rancho Santa Fe for Western Pacific Housing, the courtyard space is at the center of the plan. In the mild, Mediterranean-like climate of North San Diego, a place where the well-heeled escape to enjoy a casual, California lifestyle, this outdoor rooms brings the natural environment into the center of this two-story home. An explosion of natural light results throughout the interior rooms, particularly the dining room, kitchen/ breakfast nook and the master bedroom.


    Don’t Forget Drainage
    A word of caution about drainage in courtyards—don’t overlook it. In fact, I recommend over-designing for drainage in courtyards so that standing water from rainfall, landscape irrigation or roof runoff isn’t an issue.

    Standing water will present real problems if all roofs are allowed to drain into the courtyard. Consider instead installing gutters that divert water to a downspout away from the courtyard.

    In courtyard spaces with heavy landscaping, invest in inverted drains that stick up and cannot easily become clogged with leaves and other debris. This is a real hazard with drains that are flush.




    Buyer Benefits
    The benefits of courtyards go well beyond aesthetic considerations. Central courtyards particularly offer home buyers tangible benefits—not to mention potential savings—every day. These include:



  • Better ventilation: In today’s more tightly sealed, energy efficient homes, natural ventilation is an important issue. Windows in rooms around the courtyard can add a lot of air movement within a home as well as provide natural heating and cooling.



  • Lower cooling costs: Because a central courtyard is enclosed on all four sides, windows can be left open to take advantage of natural breezes for cooling rather than forcing buyers to resort to expensive air conditioning. This is especially important in California where energy usage, not to mention supply, is a real concern.



  • Greater security: Home buyers aren’t trading security for interior comfort. Few home buyers today will leave exterior windows open over night or even during the day, but with courtyard windows security issues are moot.

    Courtyards are a needed element of delight to this new generation of homes. Properly located, courtyards can extend sight lines and allow small spaces to feel and live larger. Buyers view them as an additional room, a private and protected exterior space. They can be dressed up with fountains, fireplaces, trellises, outside heaters, fireplaces and built-in barbecues. They can be furnished with patio furniture and creative landscaping.

    Adding courtyards to today’s new home design is a rediscovery of a classic mode of architecture. In short, we took one step back to take two steps forward, and in the process we’ve generated some much-needed diversity into our designs and created a new energy in the market.


    Also See:

    Floorplan 1

    Floorplan 2



























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    PB-Design,PB-Custom Home Design