Turn your courtyard into an inviting outdoor room and you’ll never want to go back inside.
Words: Catherine Stewart
For many homeowners, a courtyard outside their front or rear entrance is their only outdoor space. And in smaller homes, where space is at a premium, making the most of this courtyard space is a priority. Turning a courtyard into an outdoor room is a clever way of extending the indoors out and creating an additional “space”, whether it be for relaxation, entertaining or both.
One of the distinctive features of a courtyard that differentiates it from a small garden area is the high fencing that surrounds it. House walls, often two-storeys high, are joined by the dividing walls between properties and maybe a street privacy wall or fence, forming solid boundaries. Even northerly aspects have restricted sunlight, and many courtyards will only have a short period of sun in mid-summer. It’s hard to catch a cooling breeze and every sound is amplified. Most courtyards are also completely paved, so you’re confronted with a hard-surface box from which to make a soft, welcoming outdoor room.
Outdoor room makeover
High side walls can feel like they are looming over you as they appear to come in at the top, so even a good-sized courtyard can feel smaller than it is. Although it may seem counterintuitive, the first step to making the floor area seem more spacious is to give your courtyard some kind of partial ceiling to define the upper limits of the space.
Motorised or wind-out awnings, shade sails, a small pergola, a large container with a small spreading tree or even just an open umbrella will give a sense of canopy and enclosure. These types of ceilings are ideal for privacy for courtyards that are overlooked by neighbours. Other tricks to bring the sky down to ceiling height are to use hanging plants cascading down from wall gardens or growing across tensioned wires. Even some bright colour up high from fluttering prayer flags and banners, or a wide, painted stripe around the walls at about the 2.5-metre mark will make a difference.
Once you have your ceiling, you’ll need to make a clear, uncluttered area to start shaping and decorating a beautiful room-style courtyard. Start by finding space for some outdoor storage and ways of keeping all utilities out of sight. Built-in storage is less noticeable than a shed, so look at incorporating seat boxes or coffee tables with lift-up lids, or cupboards concealed in panelled walls. Tidy away and cover up any outside necessities such as bins, taps, pipes, and electricity or gas metres.
Although in a rectangular space it’s easy just to set everything so it’s square to the walls, you can make a floor area seem bigger by working the diagonal. Use the lines of pavers, an outdoor rug or furniture set on an angle to break up a boxy space and stretch the boundaries. Raised garden beds, especially those that change height along their length, also confuse our perception of a limited space. A simple level change such as a seating platform or dug-in conversation pit within even a small courtyard will also make it feel bigger.
Create sense of harmony
If your courtyard walls are formed by different materials from separate buildings, try to unify them as much as possible. Having one wall different in colour or texture can make an interesting feature, but if they’re all different it will look too busy. Paint or texture coatings are a quick solution — you can even experiment with a variety of tones of the same colour. Cladding with panels of bamboo, reeds, aluminium, stone, timber or shaped multi-panel make a stunning feature wall.
To make your outdoor room feel as pleasant as possible, use pale colours or outdoor mirrors on walls that catch some sun to bounce light into darker corners. Inserting breeze blocks, grills, windows or decorative panels into any external wall helps funnel in some cooling breeze, or you can install a ceiling fan under a permanent awning. Unless you’re near a busy road and need to drown out some traffic noise, be careful about bringing in water features as their noise is quickly amplified by hard walls and paving.
Making your courtyard space somewhere you regularly cook, read or play is a good way to ensure you really do get out there and enjoy the space. A stylish barbecue with good outdoor lighting, an easy chair with a small table nearby for a book and a coffee, or a kids’ activity corner with quickly accessible toys can make all the difference between a courtyard you look at and one you’re always in. A few square metres of permanently covered area immediately outside means you can have doors open and feel part of the outside even when it’s raining.
Choose furniture carefully
Furniture in a small courtyard needs to be inviting from inside your home, but you don’t want to have to always be taking cushions and throws from inside to give it a soft touch. Invest in the best-quality waterproof cushioning and fabrics or choose settings that look comfortable without the need for extra cushions, such as woven wicker, sling chairs or smooth moulded plastics, so you’ll be tempted outside even for just a quick break.
Plants clean the air and cheer the soul, so bring some green life into your courtyard to make it part room, part garden. Big containers are easier to maintain than many smaller pots, and you can grow much larger plants, including a small tree, in a 750mm square fibreglass pot. Raised one-metre-high garden beds (fill the bottom third with gravel covered with a geotextile layer and topped with soil mix), add a layer of interest and bring in some instant height when planted with a few advanced shrubs.
The best rooms, whether inside or out, have something special in them that really attracts your attention. Lash out on one significant piece of sculpture, wall art, tromp l’oeil, colourful outdoor rug or a spectacular specimen plant that’s big enough to make an impact when viewed from inside the house, too, so your courtyard room contributes to your all-over decorating.
– Partial ceilings: A partial ceiling will make the floor area of your courtyard seem more spacious. Ceilings will also provide privacy for courtyards that are overlooked by neighbours.
– Clever thinking: Built-in storage will minimise clutter; consider seat boxes or coffee tables with lift-up lids, or cupboards concealed in panelled walls.
– Use the diagonal: By working the diagonal, you can use the lines of pavers, an outdoor rug or furniture set on an angle to break up a boxy space and stretch the boundaries.
– Unified approach: Unify courtyard walls that are formed by different materials, and to create an interesting feature, set one wall apart by giving it a unique colour or texture.
– Decorative touches: Decorate with pale colours and invest in good-quality waterproofing cushions and fabrics or woven wicker furniture settings that don’t require additional cushions.
– Keeping it cool: Cool colours (blue, purple, green and grey) make a space seem larger and objects seem smaller and lighter. These can be very useful in tight spaces and smaller courtyards.
– Warm things up: Warm colours (red, pink, orange and yellow) make a space seem smaller and objects seem larger and heavier. In very small spaces, use warm colours as accents rather than as main colours.
– Extend depth: Dark colours and deeper tones (black, dark grey, brown or purple) give depth to a small space and create an invisible background.
– Less is more: Use similar colours to expand a space and eliminate visual clutter. The less the eye has to distract the calmer — and bigger — a space seems.
– Inject some vitality: You can have too much of a good thing: using only one colour makes an outdoor living space bland. Inject some vitality into spaces where people gather with a splash of vivid colour.