Courtyards can be traced as far back as 5000-6000 BC. They appear organically throughout history in several cultures from around the world. Their construction might have started as a form of security, but it has since bloomed into a space with many faces.
The resurgence of courtyards in contemporary architectural design is but one step in the long and rich history. Exploring the world’s secret courtyards will hopefully inspire your creative heart to start designing.
History behind Courtyards
From castles to Zen gardens, the courtyard is a magnificent construct that can take on many roles. It was used for domestic purposes, religious worship, growth of foodstuffs or kept husbandry. Each culture had access to different materials and artisans, so the overall structure and design evolved separately.
Definition: A courtyard refers to an enclosed space (surrounded by four walls or buildings) without a ceiling, in other words, open to the sky.
Courtyard appeared in the following cultures:
Photo by sbmeaper1. CC 1.0
In its most rudimentary form, a courtyard provided wind and sun breaks as well as a cool resting place from hot days. The best example of this is the oldest courtyard excavated to date at Sha'ar HaGolan in the Jordan Valley. It is simplicity personified, yet served a crucial function in the day and age. These informal dwellings are far removed from the grand residence of the Wang family in Jingseng, China that sports a cool 123 courtyards. Today architects from around the world blend new developing technologies with age-old customs to create staggeringly beautiful spaces. It is enough to want to venture into the unknown and create a courtyard of my own.
Benefits to a courtyard
In 2012 an article published in Energies showed how courtyards provided an energy-efficient way of cooling a residence without the use of electricity. The enclosed space can modulate temperatures to more comfortable ranges whilst providing privacy for the residents.
It is no secret that the human mind finds solace in certain sounds and colours. The use of water in a courtyard often serves to calm the mind while cooling the space and providing localised humidity (no room humidifier necessary here!). Low wind movement and mild sun protection are also ideal conditions to grow most greenery.
Photo by Wonderlane CC 1.0
If you have ever been in a concrete courtyard, you might have noticed the significant sound echo. This concept forms part of architectural acoustics. The denser the material, the less absorbent it is in terms of sound. Reflected or reverberated sound will cause an echo, especially in terms of high pitch noises. It may be a common problem with courtyards, but there are several ways to mitigate the problem.
Materials that decrease echo:
- Porous material
- Plants or greenery
A study published in 2013 showed that you could significantly reduce echos in a courtyard by implementing green walls or bedding plants. If you would prefer a minimalist look with fewer greens, you could always opt for outdoor noise-cancelling materials. This may or may not be more costly, but above all else, make sure to not confuse indoor and outdoor noise-cancelling materials. To find out more about noise-cancelling material, visit your nearest specialist.
The wonderful thing about a courtyard is that it provides a wind-free, bright indirect light setting for plants. You will find that you are spoiled for choice. One thing that will require significant consideration is the use of trees. Trees can interfere with your foundations and should, therefore, be selected based on their root structure.
Here are some suggestions:
The second consideration is watering your plants. In a paved courtyard without stormwater drainage, you will have to consider how you will drain excess water. You might opt for using containers with drip trays, in which case, make sure you select plants that fit your containers and vice versa. Many vines can cover a wall with greenery while growing out of a tiny container. These can be Bougainvillea, Tickey Creeper, Wisteria or Pothos.
For more help on selecting plants see:
Remember that the height of the walls will dictate the amount of sunlight the plants receive. This will remain your starting point from which you will need to select your plants. If you think you will forget and want help selecting your plants, I would suggest taking a photo of the space at breakfast, lunch and dinner or dusk. The photos will help attendants suggest plants that fit that space.
Courtyards are but one of many garden spaces to decorate, so be sure to follow the rest of the design series for more ideas.
Photo by Havang(nl). CC 1.0
(1) Zhang, D. (2020, May). Courtyard Housing around the world: A cross-cultural analysis and contemporary relevance. The 3rd International Conference of Contemporary affairs in Architecture and urbanism, Turkey.
(2) Juan M. Rojas, Carmen Galán-Marín, Enrique D. Fernández-Nieto. Parametric Study of Thermodynamics in the Mediterranean Courtyard as a Tool for the Design of Eco-Efficient Buildings. Energies, 2012; 5 (7): 2381 DOI: 10.3390/en5072381
(3) Kim, M.-J., Yang, H.-S. and Kang, J. (2013) A case study on controlling sound fields in a courtyard by landscape designs. Landscape and Urban Planning, 123. 10 - 20. ISSN 0169-2046