Tuesday, September 3, 2013

A Look at Shared Courtyards

            As housing becomes denser, providing meaningful outdoor space becomes increasingly difficult.  Shared courtyards present a chance to create a valuable amenity with an economy of space.  The word “amenity” is important because it is development-speak for something that sells real estate.  The neighborhood swimming pool is an amenity, as is the golf course or the country club or the guarded entry gate.  These are high cost items that add substantial value to the real estate.  In an urban situation the space for amenities is extremely limited so there is an incentive to make more out of every square foot.  Courtyard’s can be a strategy for getting light and air to apartments, but they can also be important amenities that enhance quality of life.  They can provide play space for children where private yards are not an option, they can be a place to hold community events, a contemplative place to get away from family or roommates, a stunning view from ones apartment, and a place to cool down on a hot summer day.

A Beautifully remodeled courtyard in New Orleans, a city with a long tradition of urban courtyards.  Who wouldn't want to live here?

             I have been keeping a folder on my desktop for a few years, where I collect images of these types of spaces.  I am sharing a few of my favorites here.  The most successful examples are not only visually stunning, but are highly tuned to strike a balance between usable shared space and privacy for the surrounding units.  There is a similar balance of formality and informality as well as functionality and aesthetics.  When done right, courtyards are an amenity you can take to the bank.  A courtyard can be to a courtyard apartment building what a golf course is to a golf course community.  But with one critical difference, the golf course is an added extra, while courtyard usually something we have to build anyway.  

An everyday example
Another one from New Orleans

An informal courtyard in Spain.  Here the ground floor units have porches that act as a buffer between shared space and private space.

The courtyard leaves something to be desired, but the porches are great.

This one is from Savannah.  The entire surface is pavement yet the courtyard feels lush.  Modern courtyards are often built on top of parking making major plantings expensive.  Here is some evidence it can be done cheaply and done well.

A similar theme here, all pavement yet filled with green.  a

I have struggled to find good contemporary examples, but this one by Mithun is quite successful.  More pavement might have made this space more usable.

Some nice things are happening in this courtyard.  However the building looks like it sank into the mud about three feet.  Raising the ground floor units a few feet goes a long way towards achieving privacy.  Accessibility requirements in multifamily housing make this strategy difficult, but it can be done.  Raised patio's or porches might have made a much more exciting edge to this courtyard.  Unfortunately the developer chose to buffer the ground floor units with some dense plantings that, when they grow up, are going to block a lot of the light and views of these apartments.
This is a high end condo building in Manhattan.  There is a lot of thought and money put into this courtyard, but it still feels a little institutional to me.  Notice again the dense buffering of ground floor units.  Not the most elegant solution.
A nice start, but the architecture is not helping the courtyard here.

And finally, here is an old building with a new courtyard.  It feels a little stark with such young plantings and without any furniture, but no doubt it will mature with time and use.