Courtyard houses made a lot of sense. The residents got outdoor space that was secure and usable at all times of day; nobody had to lock a window or door that opened into the central area. It provided lots of natural ventilation. The roofs were often used for rainwater collection. Jennifer has noted that they have kept people appropriately warm and cool without high technology- for 4,500 years.
Now, according to the Wall Street Journal, they are all the rage again, for many of the same reasons that the Romans loved them 2000 years ago.
Today, the courtyard has swung back to being a blend of geometry and nature, transforming from a functional protection from weather and foes to a space that's conducive to spending more time outside. Courtyards work with any style of home, from modern to classical, but the designs are particularly popular in warmer climates, where courtyards induce airflow. When designed properly, one end of the courtyard can be 15 degrees cooler than the other end because of cross-ventilation.
The Journal notes that building a courtyard house is more expensive because of the additional exterior wall surface, but this is compensated for by the fact that " the increased outdoor space, converted from indoor space, can lead to lower energy bills as there is less home to heat." Modern technology is also helping:
A slew of new building technologies—particularly in windows, doors and lighting—has also played a role. Window and door manufacturers now make 8-foot-wide panels that can be combined to create a 32-foot-long stretch, for example.... Similarly, LED lighting has allowed architects to transform the courtyard into a functional room at night so it doesn't just sit there like, "dead space," says Baywood Park, Calif., landscape architect Jeffrey Gordon Smith.
The problem is the planning. In Rome 2000 years ago and in Mexico or the Middle East today, the houses are built to the lot lines. In the USA and Canada, there are usually requirements for front and rear yards, meaning the courtyard house needs a much bigger lot, and looks even more massive than the usual monster home. They are not building any less interior space and look incredibly silly in the middle of a big lot. (See this one in the Wall Street Journal)
Courtyard houses make a lot more sense in an urban environment. The nicest we have shown is the Toronto courtyard house by Christine Ho Ping Kong and Peter Tan of Studio Junction.
Here you can see how the ability to enclose the courtyard creates so much extra useful space, compared to a usual house with front and back yard. If only it were legal for new construction.
The problem with the houses shown in the Wall Street Journal is that they are, for the most part, giant fortresses. It would have been nice if they had shown some of the smaller urban designs that are popping up. But then it is in the Mansions section. More in the Wall Street Journal