Courtyards: An Architectural Design Element


Architecturally, courtyards add a design element that creates connectivity between interior and exterior space. The open-air oasis, a rarity in dense cities, provides a multifunctional extension of living space ideal for entertaining, gardening, yoga, and stargazing, right in the middle of a restless city. Unlike a yard, courtyards carved out in the center of a building provides a private tranquil space for homeowners or buffered space for apartment dwellers in courtyard apartments.

Designing courtyards are in line with our philosophy of providing solid connectivity with nature while responding to client needs and their vision of beautiful, livable spaces.

Courtyards can be the heart of a building where natural light and warmth permeate throughout the space. Our office and showroom, housed in our recently completed adaptive reuse project, has a beautiful courtyard complete with a custom, wood-burning pizza oven; our clients at Jordano Photography were completely on board when we suggested adding a rear courtyard to their studio.

Courtyards Around the World

The first courtyards were conceived in Syria and Iraq many thousands of years ago, providing a safe place to keep livestock overnight without sharing their breakfast. They are currently associated with French Quarter/NOLA architecture, where it makes sense to include an outdoor room to promote cross-breeze in large, sweltering homes. They could also be built around trees. But what about a full-on four-season zone like Chicago?

Connecting with Nature

Living in a hyperconnected environment has been scientifically proven to induce stress, feelings of loneliness, and people yearn to connect to the world we live in. Natural environments and having access to outdoor space can positively impact physical and mental health, and the benefits of connecting with nature can improve well-being.

We cover this in our opinion piece on the contact doctrine, which details the connection between environmental stewardship and having regular contact with the said natural world. In Matt’s own words: “We have to be in contact with our surroundings to acquire an intimate knowledge about them and to protect them. We will need a paradigm shift so that a building becomes a member of the landscape, collecting solar energy from the sun for its electrical needs while sequestering carbon and producing oxygen, harvesting rainwater for potable uses and maintaining an edible forest, and supplying wastewater to on-site wetlands.”

Our bid for courtyards is a small step toward our vision of this harmonious future, which looks to a city teeming with life, not the sterile projection of Wall-E and other climate disaster movies.

Advantages of a Courtyard

For overall mental and physical health, human beings need to see the night sky every so often. It’s truly a luxury to steal a quiet moment of private reflection in your own courtyard in a densely designed city. There are many benefits of a courtyard that go beyond aesthetics. Some of the benefits include:

Privacy + Security: Instead of hauling in the grill every night, a courtyard allows you to truly go wild with your ultimate vision for a secret garden and teak Adirondack chairs or fully decked out outdoor kitchen. Likewise, plants and edible gardens will be out of reach from hungry critters or neighbors tempted to snack on your tomatoes.

Photo credit Carmen Troesser  

Therapeutic Properties: As a society, we suffer from nature deficit disorder. Studies have shown that spending mindful time outdoors can reduce stress levels and strengthen your immune system. Putting down the electronics and spending intentional time in a courtyard’s privacy, and allowing yourself to get lost in your surroundings can help you reach a greater sense of calm.

Possibilities: Unlike a yard, open to lookie-loo neighbors, an enclosed courtyard becomes another room in your house, offering a private respite space. Being open to the sky, there are no height limits, and it can be layered with trellises, plant life, hanging cocoon chairs, party lights, or whatever you please. Or you can go big and create your own outdoor spa!

Recreation: Letting kids or pets play outdoors is a little less intimidating and can provide a greater security sense with a courtyard. They get fresh air, and you get peace of mind. Likewise, adults wanting to unwind in a private setting without missing out on a lovely summer night can get ahold of both! Depending on lot size, it’s entirely possible to install a pétanque court. How glorious would it be to spend warm summer evenings with friends, sipping Negroni’s, and playing a spirited game of pétanque?

Photo credit Mike Rivera

Courtyard Kitchen Extension

In Chicago, we relish the short window of warm temperatures, and when the sun is shining, you probably don’t want to be trapped inside, busy with meal preparation. Extending the kitchen to the outdoors can provide a fresh perspective that can boost culinary imagination and create a nature-inspired gathering space for family and guests.

There are a variety of outdoor cooking options to consider when you’re planning an outdoor kitchen design. Whether you’re an aspiring master chef or a true grill master, installing a grill, smoker, and wood-burning oven trifecta can navigate your gastronomy quest throughout the year.

When designing the moss studio courtyard, we did exhaustive research to find the perfect grill/smoker combination. We chose the Primo ceramic smoker grill and the Blaze gas grill – options galore for smoking meats and grilling some freshly harvested produce from our raised planter beds.

True to adaptive reuse form, we used the building’s bricks removed during construction to build the base for the custom wood-burning pizza oven. The enclosed courtyard creates a sheltered microclimate, which prolongs the grilling/smoking season well into the heart of winter.

 Matt preparing Neapolitan pizza in the wood-fired oven


Imagine being able to walk out your back door and wander into a green cloaked paradise teeming with birds and butterflies. With little effort or expense, it’s possible to create a lush landscape reminiscent of local garden nurseries.

Plant Selection

A mix of edible, native, and perennial plants can bring interest and layers of visually stunning plant life to your doorstep. Native plants are usually low-maintenance and drought-tolerant and tend to attract beneficial insects, such as pollinators and colorful butterflies. Depending on the soil’s health and sun orientation, edible plants can be planted directly into the ground and provide a healthy dose of vegetables throughout the summer.

Having fresh herbs and summer vegetables available just a garden shear snip away can be so rewarding! If the soil situation is suboptimal, using various containers, planter boxes, or raised beds are great options. They have the added benefit of being mobile to be placed along the sun’s path.

A more extravagant landscape plan would include shrubs, trees, and an irrigation system to lessen labor and time spent with maintenance. However, there are times when I find solace in the simple task of watering plants.

The original moss HQ courtyard, located in Lakeview, includes a mix of shrubs, containers, and raised beds filled with annuals, perennials, and herbs.

Designing and Building a Courtyard

The top drawing is the design for moss HQ courtyard and pizza oven. The bottom drawing represents the courtyard at Jordano Photography studio.

When thinking about utilizing a courtyard in your design, you should consider the following: budget, convenience and placement of a grill, smoker, or a pizza oven, shelter (is an overhang possible to protect and shade windows and doors?), rainwater collection and drainage, irrigation, hardscape, landscape, built-ins, running utility lines, and lighting hookups.

Materials and Water Systems

The courtyard at Logan Certified features a deck constructed from cedar decking at the same floor level as the interior space. There is plenty of space for a dining table, additional seating, and a kitchen work area. A step down from the deck lands you in a bluestone paver area and landscaping. For its conical shape, we chose a White River Birch for the main tree. Birch is a quick growing tree, and the size is perfect for a compact outdoor space. In the mix, there’s also a Mugo Pine, yucca plants, prickly pear, and the shaded area is planted with ferns and wild ginger. The flora was selected for their durability and the fact that Bosco, the office cat, won’t devour them.

Below grade is where the rainwater is collected and dispersed back into the landscape through a large underground tank. The Flo-Well Kit takes in water during a rain event and then leeches it back into the soil underground. Additionally, we installed an area drain connected to the City sewer and serves as an emergency backup. To ensure all the plants get their required water dose, an automated irrigation system rounds out the figuration.

Snowy courtyard on Christmas Eve

Photo credit Carmen Troesser