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Wittman Estes designs Yo-Ju Courtyard House, a nature-focused private retreat within the city

Project name:
Yo-Ju Courtyard House
Architecture firm:
Wittman Estes
Clyde Hill, Washington, USA
Andrew Pogue
Principal architect:
Matt Wittman
Design team:
Matt Wittman AIA LEED AP, Jody Estes, Ashton Wesely
Interior design:
Henrybuilt (Kitchen)
Built area:
Site area:
3460 m²
Design year:
Completion year:
Civil engineer:
Structural engineer:
Malsam Tsang Structural Engineering
Environmental & MEP:
Tools used:
DME Construction Inc.
Wood, Concrete, Glass, Steel, Stone
Residential › House

Designed by Seattle-based architecture firm Wittman Estes, the Yo-Ju Courtyard House is located in Clyde Hill, Washington (a suburb of Seattle). Through a series of thresholds from opaque to transparent, Yo-Ju Courtyard House, which means “secluded living” in Mandarin Chinese, embraces the future of suburban density by establishing a private experience despite being adjacent to a busy arterial. Wittman Estes provided architecture, interior design, and landscape architecture for the project.

What happens to the suburban single-family home as cities become dense and privacy becomes limited? It must look inward. Through a series of thresholds from opaque to transparent, Yo-Ju Courtyard House, which means “secluded living” in Mandarin Chinese, embraces the future of suburban density by establishing a private experience despite being adjacent to a busy arterial street in the Clyde Hill neighborhood of Bellevue.

Home to an active family with three young children, the architects addressed the challenges of future density—the danger of increasing traffic with playful children, noise pollution, and decreased amount of natural vegetation—by having the house look inward instead of outward. The house draws upon the traditions of “Chinese courtyard and garden design, along with the ideas underlying Chinese landscape painting techniques, to rethink the traditional single-family home” says architect Matt Wittman. 

The 3,460-sf home is organized in three elements: 1) the entry courtyard, which is screened from busy NE 24th Street; 2) the living volume, which presents an opaque facade to the street, and a transparent facade to the rear; and 3) the garden courtyard, which is composed of a secluded zone in the rear yard where children can play freely. The courtyard house connects space with nature. The entry courtyard functions as a threshold between the street and the interior. A black-stained, tight knot cedar fence marks the next transition as a concrete path moves through a bed of grasses and a Japanese Maple tree. Inside the secluded garden courtyard, all signs of urban life disappear within the oak casement of the kitchen, concrete flooring, and floor-to-ceiling sliding doors. 

By creating the illusion of large spaces that seamlessly transition to outdoor views, the house used one third less of a footprint than was allotted. Chinese landscape paintings employ a “atmospheric perspective” technique to enhance the perception of depth of space. Yo-Ju uses this technique to create “visually larger spaces than what actually exist—the eye marks the level of oak stairs, then the large sliding doors, finally reaching the garden courtyard beyond,” notes Wittman. This spatial efficiency help shape a new model for suburban housing—a decreased footprint that allows for maximum energy savings and increased planting area, privacy, and views into nature. 

“The house, "Wittman notes, "uses two major program zones to shape layers of privacy and community that were inspired by an ancient Chinese garden design principle known as ‘Big Hide.’” The communal spaces open in the center of the house while the private ones are situated at the front of the house on two levels. Hidden in the private areas, the upper floor is arranged around a craft and teaching space for the family’s three children. In the communal spaces, the house opens to the lounge and kitchen, and then onto the main living and dining. These public areas are arranged around the garden courtyard, with open corner doors that connect all the spaces together. Through design rooted in courtyards, transitional program zones, and borrowed views, the Yo-Ju Courtyard House aims create a new model for single-family housing. 

Wittman Estes Architecture+Landscape are a Seattle based integrated design studio founded on the idea that buildings and landscapes could be combined into a unified expression. They are best known for innovative housing — single-family to multi-family — that provides a rich experience and is in tune with the natural environment.



By Liliana Alvarez

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