What is a Courtyard or Atrium?

That Space You Walk Through Just Might be a Courtyard

courtyard patio
Courtyard with a pool in Marrakech, Morocco. Frank Waldecker / LOOK-foto/Getty Images

Residential courtyards and atriums are open-air or roofless spaces similar to patios. Traditionally, atriums are surrounded by at least three walls and are situated in the center of a house. A courtyard can also be surrounded by walls or buildings, but is positioned in the center or at the entrance of a home. Both blend the indoors and outdoors and provide more privacy than a backyard patio.

Historically, some of the oldest patios are courtyards. Some courtyards serve as enclosed entryways to a house.

Growing in Demand 

The popularity of adding a courtyard space to a residence correlates with homeowners' increasing desire for outdoor rooms. Architects surveyed by the American Institute of Architects (AIA) report an increase in clients requesting more outdoor living spaces. 

Courtyards provide several advantages, including:

  • A framework within which other types of landscape layouts can be developed
  • Privacy and seclusion
  • Creating microclimates for various types of plants
  • Walls and privacy or outdoor screens can be created with various types of plants or constructed of trellis-type or permanent building materials

Rethinking the Courtyard

Viewed as another room of the house, a courtyard is an open-roofed space that can be redefined to fit a homeowner's lifestyle and needs. Some courtyards are open-air entertainment centers, while others house outdoor kitchens, fire pits or fireplaces, and outdoor living room furnishings. Still, others feature hot tubs or small pools—like plunge pools or swim spas—that offer convenient access and privacy.

Modern courtyards in houses are all about privacy. Everyone seems to love the idea of an outdoor room. Because it is often located in the center of a house, a courtyard can be viewed from many rooms. Courtyard doors or windows can be opened up to other parts of the house, making the spaces more accessible to one another and further creating that indoor/outdoor feeling. Using a smartphone app, a homeowner can control large doors or expanses of glass to quickly open up and access the courtyard.

As cities and suburbs become denser, plots are smaller, and a large yard with privacy may be a thing of the past. A courtyard allows all the pleasures and conveniences of a backyard—along with convenience—for homeowners who like to entertain at home and outdoors.

Courtyards Have a History

Courtyards have been around for centuries, for everything from corralling animals to protecting crops, homes, and their inhabitants. The walls of these outdoor rooms were and continue to be used to support climbing, trailing, and espaliered shrubs, trees, and vines.

In the early 20th century, courtyard apartments were popular in Southern California as a gathering place for residents to enjoy the pool, barbecues, socialize, or simply enjoy the nice weather. Courtyards were built into some of the nicer multi-family high-rise apartments in Chicago in the early 1900s, before the Depression.

In 700 B.C., the Etruscans built atriums to catch rainwater. In ancient Rome, courtyards or atriums were built as part of single- and multi-family homes, as well as in marketplaces and government buildings. During the Middle Ages and Renaissance, courtyards were used at monasteries, with monks' rooms connecting to the central, open courtyard. 

Courtyards proliferated in European cities in the 17th century and again in the 19th century. Most were enclosed, and accessible from apartments through galleries located on each level. 

Eichler Homes

The landmark Midcentury Modern homes built by Joseph Eichler in the 1950s and 1960s included a courtyard—or atrium—in the middle of the single-story homes, which were mostly in California. Recalls Eichler architect August Rath in an interview for the Eichler Network: "Enter through an almost windowless front facade into a bright sky-lit garden area, and make a most enjoyable short journey to the floor-to-ceiling glass wall and the bright and open living area, which in turn opens to the rear garden beyond through a similar floor-to-ceiling glass wall. The net effect is that there is little or nothing between you and the beautiful garden you're in, and the garden in the rear. Now that's living!"