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Courting Fresh Air, Light : Rooms With No Roofs Create Personal Vistas, Letting the Outdoors in Without Sacrificing Security or Privacy


Courtyards provide an ancient solution to a contemporary housing problem: How to create an airy yet protected space for relaxing even when there's not a lot of room to spare.

The early Romans used the atrium, or central open-air room, to expand the interior space and let in cool air. Often these atriums had pools of water to further soothe the atmosphere.

In California, Franciscan monks introduced Spanish-style courtyards when they established missions between San Diego and San Francisco; each featured grillwork, colorful tiles and a fountain or well as a focal point.

The courtyard--whether in modern-day houses that encompass entire lots or condominiums with limited outside areas--still succeeds in resolving age-old problems of space, light and air flow.

A courtyard should not be confused with a back yard or a patio. It is an outdoor area surrounded by walls or rooms on three or even four sides. If in the front of a house, the courtyard is entered through a door from the street.

"Courtyards really are the classic response to getting usable outdoor areas in California," said architect Michael Patrick Porter of Newport Beach. Porter is creating a courtyard as part of a substantial remodel of a house in Newport.

"The original house didn't use this pass-through space as more than a walk-through area," Porter said. In the new design, several rooms are going to be focused onto this exterior 50-by-60-foot courtyard: the dining room, kitchen, bedroom and library.

"When the house is finished, guests will come to the house through the courtyard," he said. The major rooms in the house will have a bay view, while the courtyard will be a sheltered place in the afternoon when the winds come up and it gets cooler.

Many courtyards are planned for much smaller spaces.

When Irvine architect Thomas Berger was commissioned to design houses on 40-by-100-foot lots, he says he felt it was important that they have courtyards.

"Courtyards give a house some relief; otherwise the house would be a long rectangular box," Berger said. "These outdoor rooms are in the center of the house, and so they are private areas that can be used for outdoor eating and socializing."

"The courtyards in the houses I designed were relatively small--around 11 feet by 14 feet--but they do give the owners the opportunity to look from one room of the house through the courtyard into another room," Berger said. He feels that this creates an interesting layering of rooms, as well as letting in much-needed light.

"The neighbors' houses were only a few feet away, so all the major windows in the houses I designed open onto courtyards, rather than the neighbors' windows," he said.

In Southern California, weather makes it possible for doors onto courtyards to be kept open most of the year--without sacrificing security or privacy.

The relationship between the courtyard and the architecture of the house is vital. Unlike back yards--which can have a patio, trellis and then lawns--the courtyard is part of the house. It really is a room, albeit one without a ceiling. For this reason, the materials must conform to the rest of the house.

"A concrete slab and stucco walls are ugly," Berger said. "You need to add brick, tiles, ironwork, fountains and plantings."

For example, if the house is done in Mexican pavers, it would be important to keep those in the courtyard, creating a natural flow from the inside to the outside.

In one of the houses Berger designed, he added wrought-iron mini-balconies to the windows so that they could be opened onto the courtyard. From the ground floor, they give a New Orleans-like look to the area. With the addition of a table and chairs, it's possible to have a meal outside and feel removed from the rest of the house.

Newport Beach residents Barbara and Greg Siemon, working with interior designer Veronica Lorman, added a courtyard when they remodeled.

"We wanted to create an outdoor room with almost a grotto effect," Barbara Siemon said. "Since my husband has an office at home, he wanted to be able to see fountains and hear the soothing sounds of water while he worked."

This courtyard was created between the main house and the garage. It is easily reached, because Siemon had two regular-size windows in the main house converted to French doors that open into this area.

She had a concrete bench poured next to the garage wall and added big pillows to create an outdoor sofa. A small lion-head fountain along the dividing wall completes the third wall.

Again, this courtyard is in the front of the house and is reached through a door from the street.

"I tried to use old artifacts in the courtyard as much as possible," Siemon said. "I found three fountains that were from old buildings that were being torn down and put them along our narrow lap pool in the courtyard."

She also found antique wrought iron to use for decorative gates and used old wooden doors she had found in Mexico.

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