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Practical Advice from

Courtyards Bring Light and Life Indoors

See the many ways to build an atrium into your home — and find out about its advantages.

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Incorporating a courtyard or atrium, especially but not exclusively in warmer climates, supports one primary pillar of biophilic design — that is, “the intimate merging of artificial structures with natural structures,” write architect Kenneth Masden and researcher Niko Salingaros in a chapter they contributed to the book Biophilic Design. “This could involve bringing nature into a building, using natural materials and surfaces, allowing natural light and incorporating plants into the structure.” Whether a courtyard creates a seamless transition between the indoors and out or makes a relaxation haven in the center of your home, the benefits are plentiful.

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1. Natural transition zone. The courtyard of this U-shaped structure promises shaded respite to its inhabitants thanks to towering trees and open access to an interior space. The courtyard is situated in the front of the home, making it rather like a breezeway whose walls create an intimately scaled outdoor “room.” It’s much more soul-nourishing than the usual tile-clad entry inside a front door that abruptly detaches the climate-controlled home from its environs.

2. Extension of living space. This double-gable Eichler remodel features porcelain tile floors that flow from the indoor space to the open-air courtyard, uniting the two rooms as complementary living spaces. Retaining the gabled exterior wall even as the roof was removed allowed the architect to maintain the perception of the outdoor space as a natural extension of the home and not simply a walled-off patio. During a storm, most of the furniture is lightweight and easy to move indoors, and rainwater flows over the gently sloped floor, under glass panels and into planters, where it serves a genuine purpose in the biological cycle as nature intended.

Whether this lounge-like interlude between kitchen and dining room features a two-story atrium with a glass roof or no roof at all, it shares the same minimalistic flexibility of the previous photo, with pocketed sliding doors to seal off the room and minimal, movable furniture. Even if the atrium is topped with a glass ceiling, the ability to fully enclose the space is advantageous if it’s prone to overheat in the summer sun.

3. Protecting landscape features. These twin atria are as much about protecting these trees as they are about ensuring adequate sunlight. This home in the West Virginia mountains was clearly designed to fit into its environment with minimal impact to the surrounding woods. This is perhaps the essence of biophilic design: fostering a relationship between humans and the natural world by including and preserving the landscape as a central aim of the design process, rather than treating it as a nuisance or a fringe benefit.

4. Showcasing natural processes. The dogwood tree gracing the center of the home is protected by the glass walls of the atrium, which create a museum-like exhibition of the changing of the seasons. Although the tree is sequestered behind glass, which fails to exert any effect upon indoor air quality and limits human contact in a manner that seems to lessen its biophilic advantages, the lone tree brings light into the depths of the home and puts its occupants back in sync with the subtle changes of light that indicate the passage of time, a valuable connection on its own. If the walls of glass contain sliding doors to facilitate the movement of air and people between the atrium and other parts of the home, it deserves the highest accolades for its biophilic properties.

5. Maximizing skylights. A quartet of ponytail palms planted beneath skylights not only boost the home’s indoor air quality and infiltration of light into what would otherwise be a fairly dark hallway, but they also bring nature within physical reach. Although a scheme like this must be carefully planned to ensure adequate species selection, proper spacing of the plants and optimal angle of the sun, it can be a great way to take advantage of existing skylights or can serve as an alternative to a fully open atrium when such a design simply isn’t feasible.

6. Brightening deep interiors. It’s well-documented that natural light is healthy and necessary for thriving. However, in extra-long, zero-lot-line homes like this one, as well as in urban row houses whose entire middles may be devoid of windows, the atrium becomes an especially useful tool for capturing natural light. That does double for cold, gray climates, where Seasonal Affective Disorder makes getting out of bed difficult for an estimated 10 million Americans. It’s no wonder that the glass-enclosed rooms known as conservatories originated in gloomy Britain.

Here’s another view of the same atrium. It connects the different rooms of the house not only by allowing the sun to penetrate all adjoining spaces, but also by opening up sightlines that connect the rooms visually too.

7. Antidote to stresses and worldly distractions. Architects and researchers in school, hospital and office settings have linked viewing nature to a host of positive health and well-being effects, from physiological responses like decreased blood pressure and other stress markers to increased focus and productivity at school and work. These lessons from commercial design and environmental psychology can be leveraged in the design of our own homes to incorporate interior gardens or even stands of trees in rooms where relaxation or productivity happen, such as bathrooms or offices. I can’t help but wonder if this sparsely furnished room might be where the homeowners go to serenely hash out disagreements.

8. Haven for reflection and relaxation. An atrium or a courtyard is the perfect site for creating a relaxing retreat within your home. The emphasis has long been on “spa-like bathrooms” to rejuvenate us, but our indoor-outdoor transition zones, especially when they’re integral to the home’s design, offer a real opportunity to carve out a very special place that can be enjoyed by the whole family at once. This room, while furnished with little more than a daybed for napping and daydreaming, benefits occupants in all other rooms that are touched by the light and restorative beauty that this sanctuary exudes.

The height of simple luxury may just be bathing outdoors. This courtyard was purposefully designed to accommodate indulgent hydrotherapy without the exorbitant expense and lot-size requirements (and various other hassles) of a full-scale pool. If you live in a climate like California’s, which has the rest of the country dreaming big dreams about the normally “indoor” activities that could be done alfresco if the weather would only cooperate, you better start living it up before the rest of us start lining up to use your outdoor tub!

This article is from Jess McBride of Houzz.

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