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The Patio House

By Oscar Machado

Many of us living in the Eastern part of the country have a romantic vision of what a patio house is like. Most of us think of this type of house in a tropical exotic place such as the South Pacific. In fact these houses also exist in the arid regions of the world, from the Mediterranean to the South Pacific to the Middle East. Closer to us, in Latin America and the Southwestern regions of the United States, we can see many good examples.

While the more typical American single-family house occupies the center of its lot with setbacks on all sides, the patio house occupies the boundaries of its lot while internally defining one or more private patios. The yard is in the center, forming a garden open to the sky within the house. All the major rooms open to the porches lining this interior room of a garden.

From the street, the house is set close to the property line. Large windows punctuate a taut, unarticulated outer wall, and an oversized door (traditionally for carriages) opens to a dark, narrow passage allowing a glimpse into the bright, open courtyard beyond. Today these passages serve as carports or porte-cochere. The patio within the house is surrounded by a porch or corridor, where outdoor living occurs and which connects the rooms of the house. The porch is essential because it offers protection to the rooms exposed to the sun. Planting at the edge of the porch creates a screen between the exposed patio and the semi-enclosed porch. These porches serve as living areas, enlarging the livable square footage of the house without costing much. The overall cost of a porch is 50 percent less than an indoor space.

Coming into the house directly from the street, there is a sequence of dark to light spaces. The first room is the passage, a semi indoor-outdoor space leading directly to the porches next to the patio. The darkness of the passage is offset by the semi-lighted porch opening to the airy, sunny garden. You then arrive at your own private patio where you have your own private world, including the sky above, as a piece of the heavens to possess. Water fountains are placed in the middle of the patio to create a cool and inviting leisurely ambiance. It is not hard to imagine sitting around a table in the middle of the open patio enjoying the privacy and security the patio offers.

The massing of this architectural type can be described as a succession of solids and voids from the street to the back of the building. Without any front or side setbacks from the property lines, a continuous, steady wall defines the perimeter of the house. Formal rooms such as the living room are orientated to the north and south, located at the sidewalk in front. The bedrooms come next, opening to the porches that protect them from the sun. The dining room and kitchen are usually located in the back of the building for greater privacy. This responds to climactic benefits of cross ventilation and shade.

The patio house was introduced to Latin America by the Spaniards. Its Mediterranean counterpart in Spain was built here when new settlements were established during colonial times. They provided security and protection from the wilderness and intruders. Inside the fortifications, patio houses became sanctuaries. The size of the houses coincided with the perimeter of the lots, thereby giving the owners total control of their site. These colonial patio houses still survive in historic cities.

In the Southwestern part of North America, patio houses were built by the Spaniards. Many examples can still be seen throughout this region, although here they remained rural in character. Whether built as one property or part of a group, they always formed a compound. These compounds were composed of the main house and its outbuildings, in the case of a single-family home, or of a group of houses. They adapted to the frontier and eventually evolved into ranch houses.

In the West, where Hispanic influences are still prevalent, they continued to be built. The courtyard type became popular in California in the 1920s, benefiting from the climate appropriate for outdoor living year round. The Los Angeles courtyard residential buildings built in this era are an excellent example. They have beautiful, interior gardens with fountains, fireplaces and balconies, evoking a Mediterranean fabrication.

The enclosure the patio house provides, with the garden tucked within the house, is a radically different concept than those fostered by American traditions, although today's lifestyles may change the housing types we build. Security, privacy and outdoor living are important housing characteristics for many Americans. Therefore this type of home, appropriate to certain regions of America, is excellent.

Oscar A. Machado is a new urbanist specializing in the design of new developments. He is currently writing a book titled "Residential Buildings--Type vs. Stereotype" explaining the misunderstandings of housing in current conventional developments. He was recently honored by the CNU with an award for a new neighborhood. He maintains a practice designing new urban projects, and is currently acting as town architect for Amelia Park in Northern Florida. You can reach Oscar A. Machado at