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Role of Courtyards in Chettinad House Designs

Courtyards have been commonplace in residential architecture throughout the past. The earliest known courtyards, found in India dates as far back as 3000 BC. Historically, these courtyards have been used for various functions like cooking, sleeping, playing, gardening and to keep animals. Today, the concept of inner courtyards is gaining momentum in modern residences as people strive to bring the outdoors in.

Tamil Nadu is home to a unique cultural and linguistic heritage that reflects in our traditions, clothing, food, and even in our homes. A famous element of these traditional homes, in the areas of Chettinad, is the inner courtyard. This planning has rooms arranged all around the central opening.

Traditional courtyard house

In Tamil Nadu, the courtyard not only facilitates additional activities, but it is an important climate conscious design element. Positioning open spaces in buildings, helps in creating a microclimate that improves comfort conditions. Positioning the courtyard in the centre distributes diffused light to the surrounding spaces, and also becomes the space organizer and regulator. 

Since the courtyard is in the centre, it captures the Sun’s movement from sunrise to sunset.The central courtyard regulates inner temperature, through the wind stack effect. When internal air heats up, it decreases in density and rises. The presence of a courtyard allows this heated air to escape out. Cooler air from the ground level then flows through the front and back doors that is planned in the same passage as of the courtyard. 

Also this air movement, in addition to the moisture absorptive lime plasters, help in reducing internal moisture buildup and humidity. This enhances Air Temperature regulation in Karaikudi, a region which is primarily hot and humid.

The verandah surrounding the courtyard is covered with sloped roofs to protect from heat. The central courtyard is also sunken to collect rainwater collected from the sloping roofs. This collected water is used for drinking, domestic use and livestock consumption.

Airflow through courtyards
Courtyard mechanism


This courtyard form satisfies the needs for a traditional joint family system that used to exist, a few decades back. It is used to the maximum as a social platform to perform rituals and social interactions. Popularly used for hosting guests, all the weddings and rituals take place in this zone. The dwelling has been planned in such a way that every resident of the house tends to connect consciously or unconsciously to the courtyard physically or visually while carrying out their daily activities. Almost every other main space has its direct connection with the courtyard.

Activities in the courtyards differ through the course of the day. The morning activities include rituals and the traditional Puja, when the heat is very low. The afternoons when the courtyards are comparatively hotter, they are mainly used for drying clothes and spices. In the evenings, Courtyards are washed, creating cooling by evaporation and are used for pleasant social activities, gatherings, playing and for washing vessels as well. They are also functional during the night as they provide for a comfortable and cool space to sleep. Occasionally, animals like cows or goats have a place in the traditional courtyards as well, as during the winters, animals warm the space up. 

Central courtyard space
Internal courtyards

The courtyard planning is not fixed but can vary from intimate to spacious. It also varies in function and form from one climate to another.

In modern homes, courtyards allow one to unwind from the busy urban life and that’s why in olden times they were called Brahma-sthals, the soul of a home. Some designs attempt to re-interpret the courtyard principle in housing using backyards and gardens. Certain contemporary houses offer an extension to the living or bedroom which is semi covered and landscaped with trees and water bodies. The traditional courtyard design has evolved with ages, but it still serves the purpose of providing serenity, fresh air and warmth of sunlight into the home.

Traditional courtyard design | Uses of courtyards | Courtyards in modern homes | Courtyard house | Kali natural buildings initiative

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