Sunday, June 13, 2010

Courtyards, Patios, and Shade

1. Royal Blend Cafe, New Orleans French Quarter
Summer is here.  This is the time of year we think about shelter from the heat, finding a shady spot to relax.  We want to enjoy the weather without baking in it.  We seek out sidewalk cafes with overhanging trees, cool streams to walk by, and gardens lush with growth and promise.  In our homes and offices we appreciate architecture that provides spaces for summer enjoyment.  We gravitate to courtyards, patios, and shady retreats.  The best architecture is designed for all seasons.  Certainly, we want protection from winter winds and cold. 
We also want the opportunity to extend our living space into outdoor areas when weather permits.

Many cultures have developed architectural forms that offer suggestions for outdoor living. In ancient Egypt and Mesopotamia a common feature for residential architecture was the courtyard. In this tradition, all major rooms opened upon the courtyard which provided privacy, security, and a source of water. When surrounded by covered colonnades or arcades, the courtyard also provided protection from sun, dust, and wind. The cooling effects of courtyards were enhanced by water evaporating from pools and fountains, creating air currents that drew hot air from surrounding rooms and dissipated it upward. The Romans borrowed these ideas for their Mediterranean climate. We can still see fine examples in the ruins of Pompeii, Ephesus, Herculaneum and numerous other archeological sites. Some of these ancient homes are so luxurious and so esthetically integrated that we are forced to wonder if we have made much progress in the last two millennia.
2. Herculaneum ruin, atrium with water feature.
Courtyards (and the patios adjacent to them) made indoor-outdoor living an enjoyable experience in days before air conditioning. They are still a viable option for today and, indeed, are starting to reappear in housing and commercial buildings. Unfortunately, our zoning regulations discourage true courtyard homes. With mandatory front, rear, and side setbacks and lack of fireproof construction, homes of today tend to be massed towards the center of the lot, leaving no room for a central courtyard. When courtyards appear in modern architecture they are usually small vestiges of the original idea.  Nevertheless, if designed properly, even these can be a cool respite from desert heat.

3. Roman residence in Herculaneum
focused on an atrium.
The lesson of courtyards can be extended to other outdoor “rooms”. Patios should be shady retreats, with coverage large enough to shelter small groups of people. As a bonus, roofs over patios will shade the windows of a house, making interiors cooler and more inviting. Covered entries are also important. In wintertime we want a protected entrance as shelter from rain or snow. In the summer heat we seek shade. A sensitively designed home will welcome visitors with a protected area that offers relief from the sun. (Think twice about overly-grand, two-story-high porches that offer little or no shade protection.) To design all of this properly requires thorough knowledge of orientation, sun angles, and the effects of the seasons on every individual project.

4. Fountain and sculpture in a garden.
Another variation on these concepts is the loggia. This is defined as a three-sided, covered outdoor space with the long dimension open to light and air. When space is limited and a true courtyard proves impossible, a loggia gives a courtyard-like feeling, allowing as many as three different rooms to share the benefits of shaded outdoor living. Add a outdoor fireplace (for the cool of the evening) and a view (if you are lucky enough to have one) and you really have something special.
5. A shady colonnade.

The psychological effects of design are as important as the practical results. Esthetics matter. A house and its environs not only must be cool, it must look cool.  It should convey a sense of shelter and appear in every sense an oasis. It should welcome both owners and visitors. Good architecture has a sense of place in both form and function. It can enhance our enjoyment of our environment. Marrying these ideas with usable floor plans, energy-efficient technology, and exciting interior spaces is a winning formula for great architecture. The results will be appealing and will stand the test of time. Nobody could want more than that.
6. Courtyard residence by Michael Knorr & Associates.
Credits:

1. Anon.
2. Phil Hollman
3. Ursus 2009
4. Nathan Siemens
5. Koppchen
6. Knorr

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