The house type in this installment of our building types catalog is one of the most useful, and traces its American origins back to Charleston, where they still call it the “single house.” There, it’s one room wide so it ventilates easily, and opens across a broad verandah into the side garden. The classic Charleston sideyard garden pictured above sits beside a mansion, but sideyard dwellings can be as small as cottages, or anywhere in between.
The sideyard didn’t spread very much for a couple centuries, staying in its native Carolina lowcountry until DPZ took it to Seaside in the 1980s. There, people from all over were able to see it and appraise its virtues: its long East-West shape captures Southeast summer breezes on its verandahs, while the solid North face shields the garden from cold winter winds. Its Eastern and Western walls are shortest, which is great when the hot summer sun hangs low in the Western sky, or even on a scorching summer morning. And the gardens… whether a wide garden like the one above, or a string of cozier garden rooms, the greenery beckoning you outdoors is one of the highlights of any sideyard dwelling.
And so people all over the Southeast began taking the sideyard home with them, calling for the planners to design them into new neighborhoods. Recently, people in more distant regions as far away as the Great Lakes have realized that the virtues of the sideyard serve them well, too. And so the sideyard has become a favorite building type all the way to the foothills of the Rockies.
Read Outdoor Room Secrets. The basics of garden room design can all be found there.
Gardens should take hints from their houses so windows can gracefully connect outdoors and in.
If an outdoor room ends where an indoor room ends, then windows or doors that are well-composed in the indoor room are usually well-placed in the outdoor room as well. If the design doesn’t fall in place so easily, just remember that outdoor room walls are often made of things like hedges. This allows you to make a wall on one end of a garden room several feet thick if that’s what it takes to make the design work cleanly.
Beware bands of shadow. Even on hot days, it’s the sparkle of sunlight that entices us outdoors.
Yes, you usually sit in the shade when it’s warm, but people don’t go outdoors nearly so often if they have to cross a wide band of shadow to get there. That’s why the best place for a door to a garden room is on the South wall of a house.
Outdoor rooms are more delightful and more useful than lawns. Grass isn’t really so green.
A lawn full of grass is a poor substitute for a landscape filled with garden rooms. A Breakfast Terrace, Hearth Garden, Sport Court, Dinner Garden, Kitchen Garden, Coffee Terrace, Pool Court, Meditation Garden, and Secret Garden can form a delightful necklace of living spaces around a home where you can eat, entertain, play, contemplate, relax, and love, whereas most of your time spent with grass is sweating to mow it, poison it, and spray it with various other chemicals. Don’t do that. Spend your time outdoors enjoying your garden rooms instead.
Enclose your garden rooms enough that you’ll feel comfortable spending time there.
Outdoor places without enough enclosure to make you feel comfortable when you’re sitting there aren’t garden rooms at all; they’re just yards. They can still be beautifully landscaped, but you’ll enjoy that landscaping only for the few seconds that you’re passing by, not for hours at a time. The space in front of your house likely will never be anything more than a front yard because, without a garden wall at the sidewalk, it’s just too public a place for you to feel comfortable sitting there. But for every other part of your lot, don’t limit yourself to enjoying it just a few moments at a time: get enough privacy to spend quality time there.
North Side Manners
Don’t peer into your neighbor’s garden; let them be private there. Keep side windows to the South.
“North Side Manners” is an ancient Charleston term. It means “if you have any manners, you don’t look out the North side of your house into your neighbor’s side garden.” There is one exception: it’s important to have a window somewhere near the front of each side wall. It makes the street much friendlier because you’re looking at windows instead of blank side walls as you’re walking down the sidewalk. Imagine how much friendlier these houses would look with those windows. And those side windows let light in from a second direction, making everything in the room more beautiful. But if you want windows anywhere else in the North wall of a sideyard house, make sure the window is either a small square window set high in the wall, or glazed with obscure glass that lets in light but not a view.
Flank as much of the garden wall of your house as possible with a porch or verandah.
The gardens of a sideyard dwelling should lie generally to the South. The porch or verandah roof does several good things on the South side of a dwelling. The summer sun is high in the sky at mid-day, leaving the porch mostly in shade, with only a narrow band of sunlight at the edge to entice you outdoors. But during the wintertime the sun hangs low, penetrating deep under the porch roof and through the windows, warming the interior of your home.
Lay out sideyard lots so neighbors can use the Northernmost edge of the neighboring lot as part of their garden.
If you’re a homeowner, look for neighborhoods laid out this way; if you’re a planner, make sure to include a sideyard easement in your plan. Technically, a sideyard dwelling should be built right on the property line, but this causes building code issues with the building inspector. You’ll have to fire-rate the North wall of your house, driving the price up. But if every house sets back 5’ from the property line, there is no fire rating requirement. Just make sure to put an easement on that 5’ setback so the neighbor to the North can use it as part of their garden. Everyone gives up their Northernmost 5’, but gets 5’ back from their neighbor to the South. Is that clear, or do I need to explain it better?
Side yards are the perfect place for an edible garden. But be sure to make them lovable, too.
There are still some towns or neighborhoods that don’t allow vegetable gardens in visible locations, like a front yard. This is in large part because most people haven’t yet learned how to design a lovable edible garden. So don’t make your neighbors nervous; practice your craft of lovable edible gardening in your side gardens first, until you get really good. Then invite them over for dinner, and when they see how beautiful your edible gardens are, they’ll probably ask you to do the same thing in your front yard as well!
PS: Here are the other building types I’ve blogged about so far: the Edge Yard Dwellings (Cottage, House, Large House, and Mansion), the Rear Lane Cottage, and the Carriage House. I’m also blogging about some really rare but inventive types as I find them. The first is the Mayfair Lane type I found in Buffalo. Finally, I’m blogging about some types we’re developing as well, including the Dream Suite at Mahogany Bay Village.