Turning a courtyard into an outdoor room is a great way of extending the indoors and creating a special room outside
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 which differentiates it from a small garden area is the high walls that surround it. House walls, often two-storeys high, are joined by the dividing walls between properties and maybe a street privacy wall or fence too, 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.
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 also provide privacy for courtyards which 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 2.5m mark will make a difference.
Once you’ve got your ceiling, you’ll need to make a clear, uncluttered area to start shaping and decorating a beautiful outdoor room. 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 like 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.
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 kid’s 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.
Furniture in a small outdoor room 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, like 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.
• 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.
• Built-in storage will minimise clutter; consider seat boxes or coffee tables with lift-up lids, or cupboards concealed in panelled walls.
• 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.
• U 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.
• D Decorate with pale colours and invest in good-quality waterproofing cushions and fabrics or woven wicker furniture settings that don’t require additional cushions.