How to Build an Enclosed Courtyard

Created on Friday, 25 January 2013 15:29
Last Updated on Monday, 11 March 2019 23:25
Written by Mary Kay Hansen
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Here are the steps I used to design and build my courtyard.

After weighing out our many options and getting a few estimates for our backyard makeover, i,e, wood decking, composite decking, PVC decking, concrete patio, stamped concrete patio, patio with a privacy fence, courtyard with a wood fence, stuccoed courtyard with...dizzy yet?  We decided to go with a courtyard with stuccoed massive fortress-like walls, two big door gates, and room for a pony, yeah!

But, before we built our courtyard, I wanted to make sure we were able to build such a massive wall and stone fireplace in our backyard.  And most importantly, wanted to make sure we could fit it into our budget. I did a lot of research by consulting with other contractors; home improvement stores; making a materials cost list; and asking the building department lots of questions. 

I even called our tax department to make sure our taxes wouldn't skyrocket.  Thankfully, they said the wall would just be considered a fence, and the largest portion of the increase, of around only $80.00 annually, would be from the outdoor fireplace and the stamped concrete patio.  The square footage of steps and driveways are not counted for taxes purposes.  Wow, I was on my way to getting my new backyard haven!

To get inspired, I looked in magazines; searched courtyard plans and designs all over the internet; and also drove around neighborhoods trying to spot courtyards.

After drawing numerous plans that made my head spin, I thought I ended up just using some good old 4' furring strips and a vac hose.  Yes, they were the perfect tools I needed to lay out the shape of my new romantic Tuscany courtyard...ha! 

I would sit and walk around my little corral imagining how much fun it would be to have friends and family over for fun parties.  I positioned the furniture in different ways to get a feel for space.  

(I later spray painted this same furniture with Rustoleum oil rubbed bronze made for plastic, and it looks fantastic in our new courtyard.)



The furring strips worked perfectly because they were light-weight and I could move them in and out and overlap them to define the space.  After I figured out exactly what I wanted, a friend made me a simple computerized drawing, which I was able to use in order to file and get approved for our zoning, building, and electrical permits. 

To support the weight of the cement block wall, we had to have the parameters of the walls, steps and fireplace dug down 30" below the frost line in order to pour footers.   The primary purpose of the footer is to spread out the weight of the structure and to keep the wall from heaving when the ground swells up when frozen.  This picture also shows what our view used to look like before we built our courtyard.

I found an excellent block layer but needed to find the right contractor to pour the footers for the walls, steps and fireplace and someone who could pour stamped concrete.  Read my story, "Fleeced by a Fox" to see the HUGE MISTAKE I made!

Here's what the footer looks like before my handy concrete block guy started building the wall. 

I wanted stuccoed walls and wanted them to be strong and weather resistant, so the best option I found was to use cement block and stucco over them.  It took about 1000 blocks, and my concrete block guy was an expert at laying all of this block and brick!

He drilled into the footer and inserted re-bar all the way around the parameter of the wall, steps, and fireplace, and then we later filled in all the voids in the blocks to just above grade level.  Later we added additional re-bar, overlapping them to bring it up just shy of where the caps would be placed.  These re-barred sections were later filled with concrete to secure the wall even more. 

Then, to make the cement block walls even more secure, I had him fill in all around the top 1 - 1/2 rows of voids with concrete, and cap the wall with solid 4 x 16 concrete blocks.  Later 12" x 12" concrete stepping stone blocks were placed to cap off the wall top and larger ones were used to top off the columns.  Later I used a brick veneer to cover the edge of the stepping stones and made a drip edge underneath to keep most of the water from running down the courtyard walls.

Then, I helped install all the electric plug and outlets.  We enclosed all the wiring in plastic piping.  This was above what code called for because we used an outside wire, but on something like this, I think over-kill is good. 

To prevent the walls from heaving up and cracking, I installed a drainage system all along the back and right side walls down by the footer.  This was to prevent the walls from being forced inward and upward when the ground freezes and swells.  Instead of putting pressure on the wall, it will press into the wall with the least resistance, which is the drainage pipe. 

This was done by shoveling in several inches of pea gravel, installing a fabric sleeved drainage pipe, and then shoveling another few inches of gravel over the top of that.  Then filled in the rest with topsoil.

My block guy cut the cement blocks in half to create this curved effect to match the front of our house.  I built the form for steps that lead down to the driveway.

And, built the form for the fireplace.  We had the crushed limestone placed here by a slinger truck.  The guy used a remote control to sling the stone out from a conveyor belt and placed it right in the area we wanted it.  This saved a tremendous amount of time and was worth the extra $200.00 they charged.  Otherwise, we would have had to rent a buggy or use a wheelbarrow to haul it in. 

Now, the fun begins, with the concrete pour.

I found 4 stamper guys that worked as a team to pour and stamp the entire area in one pour.  This was a big feat because concrete hardens all at once and they had to work really fast.  They did an excellent job!  I then sprayed off the residual stamping release powder and sealed it.

I remember driving around the Cincinnati area to see if I could spot some courtyards, but didn't see very many.  I wondered why more people didn't build them???  Now, I understand why; it is a major undertaking.  If you are on a tight budget, plan on doing a lot of the work yourself.  We built ours for about $25,000.00, (about $10,000.00 more than expected).  I think it would cost about $45,000.00 - $50,000 if we had hired a company to do all the work.

Another more inexpensive route would be to pour regular concrete and use 6' fencing panels that come in vinyl or wood.  Or, you can build the walls with boards.  Check out this wood privacy fence I built from scratch at our previous home.