The pandemic has changed our relationship with our homes, possibly permanently. One of those changes is the desire to maximize our outdoor living spaces. The reasons include new pressures on indoor rooms to multi-task for study, work and exercise – at the expense of relaxation – and a desire to enjoy safe, healthy outdoor time.
“Scientific evidence continues to mount that when we spend time immersed in nature or surrounded by even modest natural features, it boosts our mood and leaves us feeling emotional restored. During stressful times, these moments to find beauty and peace become more important than ever,” comments Florence Williams, author of The Nature Fix.
Homeowners are doing what they can to create private havens on their properties, and new home builders are touting the outdoor areas included in their plans. Some are harkening back to historic eras when interior courtyards were fully enveloped in the home’s architecture and accessible from adjacent rooms that opened onto them. This design provided a household with private areas to gather amid fruit trees and flowering plants, but away from the prying eyes of passersby and potential security threats. It still does, and may make a comeback because of the pandemic.
“I drew inspiration from ancient Roman courtyard homes,” shares Scott Cowell, an architectural designer with house plan design firm Prim Haus. “I love the idea of courtyards because they create some of the most important elements in architecture; light and air,” he adds.
Cowell is not alone in being inspired. Home improvement site Houzz reports an increase in searches related to interior courtyards going back to March when sheltering at home began in hard-hit early states. Associate editor Annie Thornton says, “Outdoor living spaces have been extremely popular since the beginning of the pandemic, and we anticipate that single family homes and multi-unit buildings will have more connections to the outdoors in the future.” She sees courtyards being a useful feature for bringing home and landscape together.
These interior courtyards are often open air above, though some do feature glass ceilings. “There are so many benefits for connecting to nature in all seasons and activating all of our senses,” declares Jack Carman, a landscape architect at Spiezle Architectural Group, a multi-branch firm headquartered in Hamilton, New Jersey. “If needed, a pergola, table with an umbrella or other shade covering can provide ‘shelter’ from the sun or rain in times of inclement weather and winter months.”
In some instances, a glass ceiling may be operable for greater climate control. “Whether a courtyard is enclosed really depends on the climate of the site,” comments Laura Kazmierczak, a project designer at SFCS Architecture in the Philadelphia area, adding, “During the pandemic, there is a desire to maximize exposure to the open air as much as possible.”
“[They] can be designed for meditation, spirituality, yoga, and other activities,” suggests Carman. They can even be designed for outdoor classrooms, he notes. “Many subjects, such as math, science, language and physical education, can be taught using the garden as a classroom.”
Just as in ancient times, a basic interior courtyard would include plants, flowers and trees, plus benches and tables. “Other desirable elements include water features – ponds, fountains and even interactive water features that help make the experience more sensory; trellises or shade structures; bird feeders and houses for observing animal interactions; a fireplace or fire pit; raised garden beds, and meandering paths,” Kazmierczak describes.
Carman agrees. “A water feature is one of the preferred elements,” he adds. “It provides soothing sounds as well as a positive distraction.”
Carman and Kazmierczak both design for senior living facilities where these garden courtyards may be the only outdoor environment that residents can safely access. “They provide a secure, comfortable space to experience nature,” Kazmierczak shares. “Exposure to the outdoors can help ease anxiety and support calm,” she observes, as well as providing exposure to natural daylight, critical for seniors’ vitamin D absorption and circadian rhythms.
Interior courtyards can also provide mental health and wellness space in educational settings for children and college students, she adds. “For new facilities, with the coronavirus pandemic in mind, outdoor courtyards will begin to become more of a required element, as opposed to just a wish list item,” the designer predicts.
Will this be the case for larger homes too? It’s likely, given current trends, that some outdoor space and nature connection will be on every home buyer’s ‘must have’ list long after the current pandemic. The home with a fully-enclosed interior courtyard often demands a larger lot, but rethinking interior spaces to have their own outdoor connection, even if small, can be achieved on a smaller scale.