Originating with communal dwellings going as far back as 3000 BC, courtyards are usually enclosed by walls and buildings. Even small houses can have inviting front yard courtyards. They may contain gardens and fountains or a simple patio where homeowners and apartment dwellers can sit and relax. With the addition of outdoor furniture and fixtures, the courtyard may double as an extension of the home.
The main characteristic of front yard courtyards is enclosure – either with fencing or walls, sometimes hedges. Most are open to the sky, though some may have a roof that can make the yard dark unless window openings are cut into the walls. This might be an ideal setup in a hotter climate, where both ventilation and shade are desirable. The purpose of enclosure is privacy, shielding the entry from the street and allowing a buffer zone between the house and traffic noise.
Front yard courtyards are almost always paved in some way. Flagstones, concrete paving blocks or even bricks may be used, depending on the design. A simple patio floor can be a uniform surface, or ground cover may be planted in between stones. Colored gravel is probably more economical but will have to be replenished as people walk on it. If homeowners plan to use the courtyard for entertaining, a solid surface that is less prone to causing falls is a better choice.
Those with a green thumb may wish to have front yard courtyards that double as gardens. Plant nurseries carry many lovely ornamental plants suitable for flowerbeds and there are even varieties of vegetable and fruit-bearing shrubs that do well in pots. Another way to naturalize the courtyard is to include vines and espaliers along the walls. A water feature such as a pond or fountain establishes an air of serenity. Benches around the garden provide a place to wait for someone or simply admire the greenery in the fresh air and relative privacy.
Entrances to front yard courtyards vary. A garden courtyard may have an archway made of iron or other structural material, or a pergola covered with vines or wisteria. The entrance may also be gated so the courtyard can be closed up at night for added security. In a very large home or commercial building, an indoor courtyard or foyer leading to a central patio-style area breaks up the expanse of a huge lobby. Seating can provide a pleasant waiting area for guests, or a serene place for employees to take a break.
Front yard courtyards can even become an extension of the home. If a backyard patio is impractical, the courtyard makes an excellent area for dining out. Beyond the traditional charcoal grill, outdoor kitchen appliances and fixtures may be installed. In ancient times, people used the courtyards of communal housing in this fashion. Modern apartment buildings often have a similar feature where the pool or a community facility is available for residents to gather and get to know their neighbors.