The Role of Courtyards in Tropical Home Design

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Courtyards can bring nature into the home. Image: Albrecht Fietz

Courtyards can essentially be defined as a void or an open or semi-open space within a building, generally enveloped by the other spaces on three or four sides. They are amongst the oldest architectural footprints that have been used in buildings by humans and are known to play a significant role in regulating the microclimate.

In fact, along with its thermal regulation qualities, the sizes and ornamentation of courtyards became symbolic of the grandeur and prestige of the buildings in the past. With time, the use and design of the courtyard has evolved significantly, and today, it has gained a renewed world-wide acceptance in the world of contemporary architecture, due to its flexible aesthetic, transitional and thermal regulation qualities.

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From hot-dry to hot-humid tropical climates, these wonder elements tend to act as the lungs of a house. There are many benefits of carving out a courtyard within a house. With monsoons, occasional drizzling, abundance of natural light, soothing breezes and changing wind patterns, a courtyard is the perfect way to enjoy nature while also being protected from it. It is a way to enjoy the tropical climate from the comfort of home.

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An architect-designed courtyard in a contemporary home. Image: Marzeena Gaines

With diminishing self-standing houses and increasing apartment and square footage culture, courtyards did start to disappear from the urban language for a few years. However, recently, even commercial buildings, workplaces and multi-level apartments have started to recognize the importance and charisma of courtyards in the building envelope. They are the simplest elements that bring big differences to the ambience, microclimate,  impression and activity of the buildings and homes.

Let’s discuss the amazing benefits that courtyard offer in a tropical home:

1 – Natural Light

The versatile open or semi-open space of a courtyard is a great source of natural light within a home. Within the clustered urban fabric, it often becomes difficult to gain natural light on all sides of the house, but nobody said we cannot let the center of the house be that source of natural light.

It could be an extension of living space, or pair privacy with some natural light through your bedroom window. There are numerous options to use this element in your layout, and it will make sure to give you a bright and airy tropical home.

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A peaceful inner courtyard in Peru’s tropical highlands. Image: Ruben Hanssen

With this small space addition, your home could become livelier with the changing patterns and exposure of natural indirect light in the courtyard. From morning to evening, from dry season to rainy season, you can see your house in a new light, just with this one element.

2 – Efficient Ventilation

Stark effect is one of the major ways in which courtyard facilitate thermal comfort. Stark effect is a term that can be simply explained with the phrase “hot air rises up”. As courtyards are open or semi-open entities breaking the span of the roof, it provides a perfect interim outlet for the hot air from the home to rise up and escape through the opening, thus cooling the temperature within the home. It provides a shorter path for effective cross ventilation.

Worried that conditioned air might escape? No need to worry because contemporary designs have evolved keeping in mind the occasional need for air conditioning. Courtyards can easily be enclosed with a glass envelope, or a retractable roof, to keep the conditioned air within the home when preferred.

3 – Comfortable Microclimate

Another wonderful fact about courtyards it that they can be manipulated to fulfill different intentions just by altering size, shade or position within the building. An in-depth study of sun paths, wind direction and a general climate understanding can indicate if the courtyard in your home should be open or semi-open, large or small, towards the center or edge. These factors also determine the size of the courtyard and the amount of the shade provided at different times of the day.

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A hidden courtyard in Puerto Vallarta, Mexico. Image: Mick Haupt

Whilst in hot and humid climates the primary effect on microclimate is the facilitation of cross ventilation through the courtyard acting as an outlet for hot air, in hot and dry regions adding a water body, grass or some indigenous plants and shrubs in the courtyard can help improve the humidity levels throughout the house.

4 – Healthy Living

In today’s time, where inside-out architecture is reiterating its roots into our culture and design language, and need for environment friendly choices is immense, courtyards are an amazing way of achieving both.

Whatever the climate or activity outside, courtyards give you a way to blend your interior spaces with the natural light, breeze and plants, bringing an interesting visual and mental transition into your space. Even if you live on a busy road, they can give you a soothing acoustic and visual buffer.

In busy urban environments, courtyards can offer a visual break from the computer screen and provide an opportunity for those working from home to stretch their legs a bit with a walk around the courtyard.

5 – Extended Space

Courtyards can act as the perfect extendable and functional space to a living or dining area, an effective barbeque area, a party venue or even an extended reading corner for more introverted souls. With the overwhelming possibilities of shapes, sizes, configuration and layout within the home, courtyards respond to the needs of both those who like to socialize and those who like solitude.

6 – Embracing Nature

Courtyards can really expand the opportunity to employ low maintenance natural materials and design elements in the home. It is no secret that natural materials like stone paving, grass, water fountains or terracotta pots help in creating a calming and healing ambience within a home.

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A courtyard can provide a retreat for quiet solitude. Image: Alexey Ivanov

Courtyards also provide the opportunity to incorporate indoor gardening into the home, and along with natural materials, can create a soothing transition every time you walk by. The best part is that courtyards are versatile enough to be interpreted and designed as you see fit.

With all these benefits, there is no question that courtyards are one of the best features that you can include in a tropical home design to gain a multifold improvement over the climate. I grew up in a house with a courtyard, dressed in natural light with happy meandering plants, and it was indeed my favorite place in the home.



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