Help--Interior Courtyard in WI

gobrunoNovember 10, 2008

Hi all,

We're in the process of designing a home in WI, and I have my heart set on a courtyard. We lived in the SW for a few years and I really fell in love with courtyards. We have a preliminary plan for a home that includes a courtyard, but I'm concerned about light back there bc a lot of people have told me that it will basically be a blackhole. Here is a drawing of the portion of the house with the courtyard.

The south wall of the courtyard is made up of the screened in porch, which is 1 story high (and screened--so no solid walls). The west wall is the garage, which is 1 story for about half of the length of the courtyard and 2 story for the rest, and the rest of the courtyard is surrounded by 2 story walls (but with lot of window--so lots of reflection, hopefully). There will also be a french door directly from the kitchen into the courtyard (not shown on plan). Anyway, what do you all think of the light issue? I never thought it would be a problem bc there is no roof! Wouldn't it be like a huge open skylight? I don't expect sun in there 24/7, but wouldn't it get a decent amount of natural light? We're not planning on growing anything in the courtyard--mostly all hardscape, a nice fountain and may be some potted shade plants and vines. Does this sound like a crazy concept?

Also, while I'm on this subject, I'd love recommendations for foutains for my courtyard. I was hoping for something that could go against the wall and be a good focal point from the kitchen window. I want something low maintenance and was interested in the pondless fountains, but I want it to be up against that garage wall. Anyway, any input/suggestions would be great!


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bahia(SF Bay Area)

From what you have described, it does sound like this courtyard will be in full shade in the winter months, and only get direct sun at mid-day in summer. Even in summer, it sounds as if it will be mostly shaded, and if a cool courtyard is what you want, it should work. If you had intended this courtyard to provide some winter sun and warmth, the building heights, courtyard orientation and small size of the courtyard are working against you. As you intend to use mostly potted plants, and your climate in Wisconsin doesn't suit very many plants in containers left out in the winter cold, it may not be an issue for you if you are moving things in and out seasonally, or using mostly house type plants or summer bedding plants for summer interest. You may want to check sun angles on that south facing wall of windows at the screened in porch, as it would appear to me that this won't get winter sun with a 2 story facade at the north side of the courtyard.

There are lots of wall hung fountains available as prefab units, there shouldn't be any problem finding something locally or on-line.

    Bookmark   November 10, 2008 at 1:09PM
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catkim(San Diego 10/24)

Looking at your plan, I wonder what you want from your courtyard, what is its purpose and/or use? If the screened porch has a roof, it looks like the courtyard will be a very cool shady echo chamber most of the day.

Courtyards that appeal to me are accessible and visible from the common areas of the home, or serve as a private garden off a master bedroom suite, whereas this plan presents more of a view from the kitchen windows and screened porch. This doesn't seem like a natural location to me, but it may exactly match your desires.

    Bookmark   November 10, 2008 at 1:23PM
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Yes, we'd like to use the courtyard as a nice peaceful and shady spot during the summmer months. Honestly, we don't plan on having hardly any plants in the courtyard. It will be mostly hardscape with the fountain as a focal point. We will have decorative "rock garden" type thing along the perimeters of the hardscape, and will probably add some potted annuals during the summer.
So, I wasn't really sure what you were saying about the sun angles on the south facing wall of windows at the screened in porch. I was thinking that the screeened in porch would be getting sun all the time all year round. It is on the South side of the house. So, the top of the picture is South and the bottom of the picture is North. I know, a bit confusing.... So, I'm a little confused as to what you mean about the house casting shadows on the screened in porch. I just want to think this all out.
Thanks for your input. I really appreciate it!

    Bookmark   November 10, 2008 at 1:32PM
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mad_gallica(zone 5 - eastern New York)

To me it looks cold, hard and unwelcoming. The sun never gets as high in the sky in Wisconsin as it does further south, so it will have a much harder time finding its way into something so enclosed. This will also be an issue with the porch since the sun won't hit it until around noon, and after that it will become increasingly hot.

We haven't begun to discuss snow removal, real plants that might consent to grow under those conditions, or what you are going to do with it during the six months of the year that outside living is only for the stalwart with good coats.

    Bookmark   November 10, 2008 at 2:54PM
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Oops forgot to answer the question from catkim. So, actually there is going to be a french door just left of the left dishwasher(when you're facing the sink) in the corner of the kitchen so that it will be easily accessible from the house.
So, may be I'm romanticizing this bc I love the idea of courtyards, but I envision that we'll use it as a spot to hang out where we won't be on display to the neighbors. We have very young children, and I envision letting them play in courtyard during the warm months while I get their meals ready, or just hanging out there with them during those times where we just want to get some air and not really commit to playing in the front or back yards. We had something similar when we lived in the southwest (so useful more parts of the year), but we'd just hang out back there and my kids would play with buckets, shovels, cars in the fountain, and stack rocks, etc., and it was just very peaceful bc it was so private. There was just something nice about that feeling of total privacy. When the kids get older, I envision myself sitting out there and just getting some peace and quiet!
I guess I think it's interesting that people think it would be cold. We plan to use stamped concrete back there and the house will be a cedar shake style home. There are many homes in the SW that have courtyards that are entirely hardscaped, and they look really great. So, the walls of the courtyard will be shake with one wall being a screened in porch. And we'll have a wall fountain on one side with lots of windows from the surrounding rooms.
Yes, I thought about the snow removal issue. We lived in a below grade condo in Chicago for awhile that had a patio that was basically a large window well. We had snow accumulating back there, and as long as we brushed it away from the door, it kind of just piled up in the middle and then melted away in the spring. We'd make sure to have good drainage in the courtyard. True, we wouldn't use it for 6 months of the year, but we would hardly use any outside space, courtyard or not, for that same period of time. Really, I think that outdoor space in the midwest is designed for 6 months of the year anyway. So, I guess I'm trying to think about how it would feel during those warm months.
Anyway, I am concerned though about this courtyard being too dark. Do you think it would help to push the screened in porch back (to the south) 3 feet to make the courtyard 3 feet longer and may be let in more light?
Do you think it would looke weird to have the screened in porch just out like that?

    Bookmark   November 10, 2008 at 3:29PM
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Could you elaborate a bit more on how this design was developed--were the features designed in order to create the courtyard, or is the courtyard just the space left over between the porch and the garage? Because I wouldn't have purposefully blocked all the southern exposure and also the western exposure if I were living in WI, or designed a courtyard in that area (again in WI), and blocked the light into the kitchen (the porch will not bring light into the kitchen as well as a few "real" windows in a southern wall--unless you have skylights in the porch roof) but if that's the home plan for that site and you are just trying to create a courtyard in some leftover space, then it might be different.

What is the plan for snow removal/melt in the courtyard?

Anyhoo, I also am having trouble visualizing what you are gaining with the courtyard design, again, unless it has more to do with how to maximize that space if you are already committed to the other aspects of the floorplan.

    Bookmark   November 10, 2008 at 3:36PM
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karinl(BC Z8)

The angle of the sun depends on both your geographic location (latitude, specifically) and the season. You should maybe build a rudimentary model and use a flashlight on it (research the angles) to ensure that you know just how the sun will get into this area and whether that will meet your expectations (not ours, yours!).

I live north of the 49th parallel (just north of it, but still...) and my south-facing back yard gets hardly any sun on the ground during the winter months due to surrounding trees and buildings. I look out and see sun, but it's on walls and trees, and it's not hitting the ground much. In the summer the yard is VERY sunny for most of the day, however (getting too hot to handle already in May and June). So you may actually have a few brutally hot hours out there in summer - no cool luncheons, I don't think, and maybe even hot afternoons depending on what is to the west of it - I'm not clear where the garage ends and how high that wall is. That may be the opposite of what you want.

You don't actually make it clear whether you know the Wisconsin climate, and in your position I would hesitate to "set my heart" on such a feature without an understanding of the local conditions. What you should also understand well - and actually I think you do - is your own expectations of the space. Basically it seems to me that you want a controlled, private, outdoor space to look at in winter as well as a private, cool, designed space to sit in summer. All well and good; this space may do that depending on what time of day you have in mind.

But here's what I wonder: why not just use the back yard? Courtyards come from climates and locations where the unenclosed outdoors is inhospitable - too hot, not private, or outright dangerous. It seems to me that all of what you want from this courtyard can, in northeast America, be provided within the context of the actual backyard itself. So I wonder whether the courtyard will offer anything you can't get from the backyard with a lot less commitment to an idea of uncertain merit (and possibly limited resale value). Unless you're on a busy street or something of course.

If you don't have a reason to avoid using the actual backyard, my other question would be what you would do with the space if you were not putting a courtyard here. Would you extend the porch? Make the garage bigger? Or change the layout of the whole house? And are any of those options more attractive to you than the possibly risky proposition of a courtyard?

Or perhaps to put it another way, what are the trade-offs? This space makes getting out of the kitchen into the actual garden quite indirect, for example, and may darken the kitchen relative to an alternate plan.

Finally, I wonder if you can take the idea of a courtyard and build it so that the space is convertible. Maybe to be glassed in to become a conservatory, or fully enclosed to make an additional room - ie it would have a foundation and be amenable to heat/power service just like any other part of the house. That way, if you don't like it or it is perceived as a liability or as wasted space if you put the house on the market, it could be converted into what other people would perceive as an asset.

Anyway, those are just some thoughts that you may already have covered. As for the light issue, winter may not really matter that much. I would double check that it will be the cool oasis in summer that you think it will be.


    Bookmark   November 10, 2008 at 3:51PM
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Thank you all for the thoughtful comments. Karinl, I laugh bc I was actually planning on doing exactly what you suggested--building a model. My husband thinks I'm nuts, but I think I'll do it for peace of mind. So, I think it got lost in my other posts, but there will be a french door leading directly from the kitchen into the courtyard. Also, I think that may be I should have also posted my entire 1st floor plan to give you a better sense of how the courtyard fits into the house (which we did purposely design into the plan). Here's the entire 1st floor:

and here's the rear elevation (the south side of the house):

So, the courtyard is one of several different types of outdoor spaces for the house. The house will sit on 1 acre, which is longer than it is wide, and we'll have neighbors on either side. Since the back of the house faces south, I think that it will get plenty of light, especially with all the windows (including celestory windows midway through the great room) in the great room, dining room, and sun room. We're going to have a large patio off the walk out basement, in addition to the screeened in porch, porch w/pergola, and courtyard. Oh, also, the roof over the screened in porch will be a hip roof in order to allow for more sun to come into the courtyard. So, may be the courtyard is a bit frivolous, but for some reason I have an emotional attachment to it. I know that sounds weird. If you think that it might actually be too sunny in the summer, I guess I can deal with that with an umbrella. Yes, I don't think the lack of sun in the winter is a big deal bc I'm not going to be in any of my outdoor spaces in the winter anyway. Anyway, so, we haven't blocked any southern windows. Our builder thinks that drainage wouldn't be too much of a problem to take care of. I kind of envision the courtyard as a private retreat option when we don't want to use the other outdoor spaces.
Anyway, I grew up in the midwest and lived through the last winter in WI where we had record snowfalls, but I remain undeterred! :) I think I'll do that light experiment with the model and see how that turn out. Anyway, I really appreciate your thoughts. Please keep them coming! Really, it makes me think about issues that may not have occured to me, and forces me to think about whether there is a workable solution or if I can live with it.


    Bookmark   November 10, 2008 at 4:25PM
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Such a small space and the lack of light suggests a very minimalist aproach. A few inches of gravel on top of a landscape fabric directly on the ground should take care of snow issues. As for planting, again less is more. Bamboo, grasses, ferns, hostas, 3 small trees. I'm not suggesting you go all japanese, but a look at some japanese gardens could give you some insperation.

    Bookmark   November 10, 2008 at 4:57PM
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catkim(San Diego 10/24)

Go for it, I think it might work. But have a backup plan for a conservatory roof just in case... Am I reading the floor plan right -- dining, kitchen are open to the great room? It makes more sense to me now, but I can't imagine being unable to use my outdoor spaces for 6 months every year.

I hope you will return to post photos once it is built and again after you have landscaped.

    Bookmark   November 10, 2008 at 6:34PM
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Do a shadow study.
They are required here in Marin County when submitting our plans for permit.

Go to an architectural website and search for the phrase, or perhaps try the Marin County architectural permit review requirement website and they will show you how to do a shadow study. That's were I was sent when I first was told that I had to submit shadow study analysis when submitting for permit.

    Bookmark   November 10, 2008 at 7:26PM
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karinl(BC Z8)

Sorry I didn't see your additional post just before I put mine up - I guess I was typing.

Sounds to me as though if anyone is qualified to field test the courtyard concept in Wisconsin it would be you. I foresee coverage by local design media, and a veritable avalanche of copycat designs!

Good luck with the shadow study and the real thing!


    Bookmark   November 10, 2008 at 8:09PM
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Good suggestion on the shadow study. I googled the terms and I couldn't find anything about it. Do you have more information about it?


    Bookmark   November 10, 2008 at 11:37PM
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gobruno, I linked the study instructions for Marion county below. This is the first I've seen for permit requirements. Rural Arkansas has almost no red tape for house construction.

The study linked is a novel way of bringing science to the masses. The instructions lacked the detail a homeowner would need to complete the process. And for you, the table of multipliers won't work outside of Marion county. And unlike the study, your interest spans the summer months rather than the extremes of shadow location at the summer and winter solstice.

The location of the sun and shadows is close to identical for a day that is x number of days before and after June the 21. For example June 10 will have the same sun as July 11. If you choose to do the study, I suggest you use June 1 and May 1. The May 1 date will give a good idea of the sun from April 15 to May 15 and also July 27 to Aug 26. The June 1 date will cover the May 15 to July 27 period. Do some winter dates too if you need to see if sun will reach house windows.

Note that in the study, the location of the sun is given in degrees clockwise from north. North in this regard is geodetic north, rather than magnetic north, compass north, a state mapping north, or the north indicated on a survey. You will need to determine the orientation of the house relative to geodetic north. This can be done from stakes on the ground where the house will be built or from a site plan showing the house location if the geodetic bearings of the property boundary are known.

My guess is that you won't find anybody locally to do your study. If you want it, it's a DIY project. And there is nothing you can't do, with guidance.

Here is a link that might be useful: shadow study - Marion county style

    Bookmark   November 11, 2008 at 9:15AM
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Perhaps everyone is 'over thinking' this project. Last week I trespassed and visited a very expensive townhouse nearing completion where I found the entire unit built around a two-storied walled interior courtyard, most of the rooms facing outward toward it. It was late afternoon, the sun low in the sky and the courtyard was flooded with light.

An interesting landscaping job a number of years ago was done in a similar situation for an architect who was building his own hide-a-way with no exterior windows; interior lighted only by natural light flooding the courtyard. Worked well.

I really do not see a problem with this design. I like it because the set-up allows heat to be dispersed through the open doorway and porch, so the courtyard will not become a heat sink. A good drainage system is imperative. Also, run electrical wiring to all the walls as there is the oportunity to install some very interesting night lighting. A consultation with a lighting expert would be a good idea.

Privacy is important to our OP whom I encourage to press on with this plan. I think you are over worrying about the natural light situation.

    Bookmark   November 11, 2008 at 11:39AM
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mad_gallica(zone 5 - eastern New York)

I wouldn't say that heat dispersion is the problem so much as heat accumulation.

I'm assuming the OP is in a climate similar to mine. Here, overnight lows in the 40's and 50's are fairly common. Until the sun hits things and starts warming them up, it's chilly out there. The place to be is on the south or east side of the house where the sun is. Later on in the day, the place to be is under a nice, big shade tree, where the light breezes blow.

    Bookmark   November 11, 2008 at 12:21PM
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Nandina brings up an interesting point ( as usual ) .
It reminded me of my recent trip to Barcelona Spain where I went to view the architectural genius of Antonio Gaudi.
At Casa Mila and Casa Batllo, Gaudi use a central courtyard as a gigantic light well. - Very effective in how it diffused and distributed the emotion of light . From Barcelona Spain 2008

And as I.M Pei has said, Light and how it works in collaboration with architecture is what brings architecture alive.

I think that after you do a shadow study analysis that you will find how exciting the wall fountain is going to be within the courtyard, especially how light , whether it be natural or electrical , will ignite its aesthetic role .

    Bookmark   November 11, 2008 at 12:58PM
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Thanks Nandina, for the reassurance. Btw, what does OP stand for?
So, we're going to move the south wall of the garage north about 3 feet (keeping the dimensions of the courtyard exactly the same), which will make that gate area 3 feet wider, to allow for more light. (the top of the drawing is south) I think that I may be overthinking the whole natural light thing, but I tend to do that with everything. If this weren't our forever house, I wouldn't agonize over it so much.
I realize that it will be pretty cool in the courtyard until the sun starts hitting it around noon time, but during the months that we'll be using it the most (summer), I don't think that's a huge concern. It does get cooler in the evenings and will cool the courtyard down, but it's pretty humid in WI, so I imagine it will be a refreshing summertime cool. It is actually pretty hot and muggy in WI; so, if we have a cool place to hang out in the morning great. We'll have to see how sunny it gets in there in the afternoon and/or evening, but we could always get an umbrella if we need to.
Anyway, I really do appreciate all the comments. I'm trying to be logical in this whole process. Sometimes it's confusing bc I'm told alternately that it will be too cold and too hot in the courtyard. You'd think at some point in the day, it would be just right, perhaps during the period of time it's transitioning between the 2 extremes! :)

    Bookmark   November 11, 2008 at 1:03PM
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karinl(BC Z8)

OP stands for original poster... the person who started the thread.

I don't think an umbrella will have much cooling effect - makes shade, but stays pretty hot on my sunny patio.

Even in the heat of the afternoon you'll have a shady nook right beside the garage wall, I think. That's where I'd be hanging out if it's muggy!


    Bookmark   November 11, 2008 at 10:51PM
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My bad--I misread the original post and thought the courtyard faced south--the elevation shots corrected that. So there are plenty of windows for light all day. All of that is a personal choice anyway, but I was trying to imagine Wisconsin winters without southern exposure.

    Bookmark   November 12, 2008 at 10:45AM
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I would like to suggest the take advice of an interior designer.After that you can solve your problems.

    Bookmark   May 13, 2011 at 5:48AM
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