Courtyards perfectly complement Colorado’s sunny clime, with calming spaces that nurture the indoor/outdoor connection.
By Bruce H. Wolk
The residential courtyard—that hallmark of lush Tuscan villas and beautifully tiled Mexican haciendas—is making inroads in Boulder County. This architectural element is emerging here for the same reasons that nobility and landed gentry incorporated courtyards into their homes—privacy, security and serenity.
“Courtyards used to be the domain of the very wealthy,” notes Luke Sanzone, landscape architect with Marpa Landscape Design Studio in Boulder. Palatial courtyards are largely a thing of the past, “when estates were built on vast expanses of open land,” Sanzone says. In ancient times, typically the home entirely surrounded the courtyard; today’s courtyards are the quintessential outdoor room.
Though smaller in scale, the modern courtyard can still transform the most modest space into an intimate area for entertaining and relaxation. Western courtyards have elements in common with their ancient forebears—an open space surrounded by walls, with one wall that may adjoin the home. Given those parameters, the modern courtyard has a lot of leeway.
Tom Sunderland, owner of Native Edge Associates in Boulder, frequently makes use of a proportionate balance of hardscape to living materials in his courtyard designs. “Many Boulder County courtyards might only have one or two hardscape walls, combined with walls made of shrubbery,” he says. “The design may have a great deal of variability based on personal taste.” Trees or shrubs can compose all four walls, or trees and shrubs mixed with some type of fencing, including latticework or trellises.
When entering a courtyard, one should have the sense of a unique space that is not quite indoors and not quite outdoors, but a bridge between the two. A courtyard should protect the home from the “chaos of the street by nurturing a sense of quiet and intrigue,” says Mike Woods of J&S Landscaping in Longmont.
But a courtyard in the front of a home can also be a space to “greet the public,” says landscape designer Joan Grabel of Park Slope Design, whose work has been featured on HGTV. “A front courtyard should be a transitional space that provides privacy from the street,” she says, “yet still connects one to the other families on the block by not being hidden in the backyard.”
In densely populated areas, a courtyard not only reduces street noise and increases privacy, “it gives children a safe place to play,” says landscape designer Matthew Underly of Designs by Sundown in Denver.
A courtyard has both horizontal and vertical elements. If correctly designed, the vertical elements can give the residents a great sense of serenity and privacy. But the most successful courtyards share certain materials with the home.
“The biggest mistake I see in the construction of residential courtyards is that they have nothing to do with the house,” Sunderland says. “There must be common elements.”
Sanzone’s courtyards explore the natural connection between the residence and the outdoors. He favors using the same materials on the outside as those in the indoor space, for example, stone flooring that goes from a smoother to a rougher version as it transitions from inside to outside. Whichever materials you choose, the magic of courtyards is that they “celebrate the outdoors,” and the space should honor that, Sanzone says.
“More and more, architects are investigating ways that courtyards can foster the development of an indoor/outdoor relationship between the home and the landscape,” Underly says, adding that Colorado’s sunny clime and courtyards are a perfect fit.
There are many ways to achieve a connection between indoors and outdoors in a courtyard. The common feature might be as simple as a shared wall, shared colors, or shrubbery in the spirit of the surrounding plantings.
Because a courtyard is the truest of outdoor rooms, it can usually accommodate substantial furniture with cushioned seating, as opposed to plain patio furniture. Built-in benches can help define the space, too.
Although courtyards consist of walls and plants, fire and water play key roles in local courtyards. “Central gathering features, like a fire pit and a fountain, help develop the sense of space and facilitate people wanting to spend time in the courtyard,” Underly says.
A water feature also enhances the feeling of calmness. “A water feature may sit behind a low wall only inches from the house next door, yet it creates a feeling of serenity,” Woods says. Fountains also mask outside noises. Because courtyards often reverberate sounds, consider wall fountains, which are usually self-contained and operate at low volumes.
Sometimes fire is used purely as a decorative feature, as in some of Sanzone’s designs, or it can be a focal point when employed in a fire pit. Thad Napp, owner of Napp Landscape Services in Longmont, favors fire pits because they bring people together in the space. The most practical use of fire is in outdoor kitchens and pizza ovens, which are quite popular in modern courtyard designs. Some courtyards also devote a portion of their design to an overhang, pergola, arbor or retractable awning for entertaining during inclement weather.
As rain is rare in our semiarid climate, some residents have replaced their entire lawn with a courtyard, Napp says. Especially in smaller spaces, courtyards with well-designed stonework and drought-tolerant plants are a low-impact alternative to thirsty lawns. A courtyard can also coddle plants that might be too fragile for an open patio.
Courtyards create “cozy microclimates,” Sunderland says, but it’s important to plan what’s to be planted, and where.Because courtyards have a defined floor space, making use of the vertical walls by espaliering plants, growing vines, hanging weatherproof art or painting a mural are ways to enhance and use more of the space. Hanging potted plants on trellises or turning one courtyard wall into a living green wall also is visually agreeable.
“Every courtyard is a challenge for a landscape architect, especially along the Front Range,” Sanzone says. “We have sun exposure with intense heat, shade, hot spots, cool spots and protected spots.” He also finds that many homeowners rush into planting without giving it the same attention to detail as they did to the paths, walls, fencing and other hardscape elements.
Woods says he can tell the time of year some courtyards were built just by their plants. When he sees all of a courtyard’s plants in bloom at the same time, he can make a pretty reasonable guess as to when the homeowners visited the garden center. It’s best to plant for all seasons and the proper zones.
“It makes no sense to have an outdoor space if there are no plants,” Napp says, “but it’s important to plan. Make sure you have enough evergreen material to provide winter color and texture, and mix in flowering plants for splashes of color.” Fewer larger pots make better sense for Colorado courtyards than lots of smaller pots that can dry out quickly and blow over in winds. Vines, like wisteria and clematis, add beauty and privacy.
And never neglect lighting. Mounted lights, hanging lights, solar lanterns, torches and electric candles are all appropriate in a courtyard. But make sure the lighting illuminates the space without blinding the eyes. Sconces that shine down help eliminate that, and don’t forget to light prominent features like trees and artwork.
With careful planning and forethought, a modern courtyard can offer all the wonders of its ancient counterparts—and more.