What is a Clerestory?

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  • Written By: Mary McMahon
  • Edited By: Bronwyn Harris
  • Last Modified Date: 04 October 2019
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A clerestory is a part of a structure which rises above surrounding an adjoining roofs, allowing light inside the building through copious large windows. Clerestories can vary widely in size, from small features in homes to massive vaulted structures in Gothic cathedrals, but in all cases, they make a structure feel less dim and gloomy than it might otherwise. Typically, constructing a clerestory adds considerably to the price of a building, since it requires special structural support and extra glass.

The oldest examples of clerestories can be found in the temples of Ancient Egypt, where architects added a clerestory to the interior rooms of their temples in order to bring light inside. Without a clerestory, inner rooms would have been totally cut off from the outside, making them very dim and oppressive. The Ancient Greeks picked up the trick and passed it on to the Romans, and it diffused across Europe from there, reaching its height in Gothic construction.


Cathedrals and old churches often have very excellent examples of clerestories, typically over the nave, the large central portion of the church used for worship, and many Roman basilicas and other public structures such as baths also have clerestories. Clerestories can also be seen in homes, both ancient and modern, and they are extremely common in factories. Factory builders like to include clerestories because they flood the floor with natural light, saving energy. In homes, one advantage of a clerestory is that it admits light and fresh air without reducing the privacy of the residents of the house.

Because a clerestory demands extra time and construction material when it is installed, a structure with a clerestory will generally sell at a higher price than a comparable structure without one. This can be useful to remember when looking at and considering structures for sale; many people find that the clerestory is worth the extra cost, since it brings so much light and air into the structure. Especially in urban areas, this architectural feature can be a great benefit.

You can identify a clerestory by the fact that it is typically lined with windows, to maximize the light which reaches the inside. When viewed from the outside, a clerestory is also very visible because it is elevated above the rest of the roof. Depending on the style of design, the clerestory may be ornamented with carvings, latticework, and stained glass, or it may be left more simple.


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Post 4

The factory where I worked for many years had a clerestory that ran along two entire sides of the building. Though I’m sure it was expensive to build, it saved the place lots of money on their electric bill every month.

Some of the few times I remember them turning the lights on were during bad thunderstorms when the sky got so dark that it looked like nighttime and during the winter months when the sun would set at 4:30 p.m. Even then, they only had to turn them on when we worked overtime, because normally, we got out by 3:30 p.m.

Post 3

I have noticed clerestories in many public restrooms along parkways and in state and national parks. This design probably cuts down on the government’s electric bill for these areas, because they don’t turn on any lights in the daytime.

The first time I saw one, I thought it was strange to put windows with no curtains in a restroom. However, the windows are up so high that no one could see in unless they scaled the building somehow.

If I’m traveling and I have to go in one of these restrooms at night, I notice that big bugs are banging on the clerestory from the outside. They are attracted to the lights inside, but thankfully, they can’t get through the glass.

Post 2

My sister’s house somewhat resembled a cabin, but it had two stories and a clerestory. She lived just down the road from a lake, and the architecture of most of the houses in that area was the same.

I remember house-sitting for her while she was on vacation. I would sit in the living room and stare up at the clerestory at night. I could see the stars and the moon at times.

One night, a big thunderstorm came through the area. I sat on the couch and had the best view of the lightning! I could see the pink streaks as they illuminated the dark clouds, all from the safety and comfort of the living room.

Post 1

I remember the clerestory in my doctor’s office that I went to as a child. I always loved looking up into the sky and seeing the clouds through the ceiling.

His office also had a tall tree growing up through the floor. The light from the clerestory probably helped it survive and flourish.

Whatever his intentions were when including a clerestory in the design of the building, it definitely made the long wait go by more quickly. I actually enjoyed sitting out there, because it kind of felt like being outside. I don’t think I ever heard a child complain about waiting in that room.

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