What Exactly Is a Clerestory Window?

published Jan 13, 2023
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clerestory windows in living room

If the windows are the eyes of the home, then you’ll have to look up to have a staring match with clerestory windows. Pronounced clear story, this type of window is installed as a row of panes, usually fixed high above eye level on a wall. 

Clerestory windows are desirable in home design because they let in plenty of natural light. But they do so in an indirect way, illuminating a space without the glare you often get from traditional windows. Transom windows act in a similar way, but they are installed above door frames or even other windows, whereas clerestory windows are installed high up along the expanse of a wall.

Clearly, clerestory windows are not suitable as the only type of window in a home. But when they are installed as part of a larger fenestration design, they can make quite an impact. Let’s take a look at some of the pros and cons of having these unique windows in a home.

Pro: They can make a space seem larger.

Windows of any type let in natural light, which can make a space seem bigger. Clerestory windows are installed in such a way that a room could be positively flooded with light.

“I don’t think I’ve ever walked in a house and said ‘too much natural light,’” says Andrew Pasquella, a real estate associate with Sotheby’s International Realty in Malibu, California. That’s reason enough for him to be a fan of clerestory windows. “The addition of more natural, often ambient, light can transform a space and make it feel more open and larger.”

Pro: They can reduce your electric bill.

Depending on the time of day, if you’re in a room with clerestory windows, you might not even need to reach for a light switch. “Because clerestory windows are placed high up on the wall, they can allow light to enter a space from above, which can help to illuminate the space and reduce the need for artificial lighting,” says Humberto Marquez, a licensed real estate agent with Awning. “This can create a more pleasant and comfortable living environment and can help to save energy and reduce electricity costs.”

Pro: They don’t take up much vertical wall space. 

Traditional windows are useful, but boy can they get in the way of wall decor. Enter clerestory windows: they’re simply above it all, quite literally. “They can be an excellent design choice to gain more wall space for art, shelving, and other decor without sacrificing natural light,” says Pasquella.

Pro: They provide an interesting design aesthetic.

You don’t need a curtain — though you could add blinds — to dress up a clerestory window. It’s usually a knock-out on its own. “Clerestory windows are a great way to add architectural interest to the home as they typically have unique shapes and sizes that make them stand out from traditional window designs,” says Shaun Martin, a real estate professional and owner and CEO of The Home Buying Company in Denver.

Pro: They can preserve (some) privacy.

Windows and privacy don’t usually go hand in hand. Depending on the placement of the clerestory windows, though, you might only get sunlight peeking in. Martin says it all depends on the design of the home and the placement of the windows; depending on the height and angle, passersby might still catch a glimpse of the interior. 

Pro: Some might allow for ventilation.

While most clerestory windows are fixed, there are those that open like regular windows and therefore carry an even bigger advantage. “When properly designed and installed, clerestory windows can improve the thermal balance of a home,” says Pasquella. “If the clerestory windows are operable and can open and close, then they can allow heat to escape in the summer and add extra general ventilation.”

Martin agrees. “Clerestory windows provide excellent ventilation in warm climates through cross ventilation, creating a cool and comfortable environment without relying on air conditioning,” he says.

Con: They are expensive to install.

Regular windows are expensive enough to install. But clerestory windows can be on another level, especially if you’ve got vaulted or cathedral ceilings in your space. “Installing clerestory windows can be more expensive than traditional window designs due to their custom size, shape, and installation requirements,” says Shaun Martin, a real estate professional and owner and CEO of The Home Buying Company in Denver.

Con: They can be less energy-efficient in colder climates.

There can be a downside to all that sunshine, depending on the climate in your area. “Clerestory windows can be less energy efficient than other types of windows, as they can allow more heat to escape from the space during the winter months,” Marquez says. “This can increase heating costs and reduce the overall energy efficiency of the space.”

Con: They are a chore to clean.

Homeowners tend to let window washing lapse even when the windows are easy enough to clean. (I’m not judging.) Marquez says the high placement of clerestory windows makes them super hard to reach for cleaning purposes, which could be a drawback for some home buyers. Still, there are many who will fall in love with all that natural light streaming in and decide it’s worth the extra money to hire a pro to clean them.

“When selling a home, it’s clear to me that light and an open feeling are advantages,” says Pasquella. “People are attracted to light and open spaces, and clerestory windows are the perfect solution to offer those.”