Here’s How You Define a Dormer, According to Architects

published Nov 19, 2022
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Credit: Wandeaw/
Dormer roof

You know that charming little gingerbread house in town? The one where you can’t quite tell if it’s one story or two because it appears to have “eyes” jutting out from its steeply pitched roof?

Those eyes are called dormers, and they’re an architectural element used to provide additional height and daylight in what would otherwise be a dark, low-ceilinged attic space.

“With the space you gain and the added window, the alcove created by a dormer in a finished attic offers an ideal, snug space for a bed, but could also be ideal for a desk or small seating area,” ​​explains Mark A. Sullivan, AIA and partner with JZA+D.

It’s a charming feature seen in many different architectural styles. They can be glimpsed in a Cape Cod or Craftsman cottage’s second floor, or the soaring third or fourth story of a Colonial Revival or Second Empire home.

What is a dormer?

“A dormer is an architectural device used to create more space and light for the area directly below a pitched roof,” says Albert Betesh, partner at Cicognani Kalla Architect PLLC in New York. It is a window that breaks through the roofline and creates usable square footage in an otherwise steeply angled space. The result is more vertical clearance, and, typically, more light if the dormers have windows.

Why is a dormer called a dormer?

Like many words and phrases, the term dormer has its roots in Latin. Betesh explains, “Derived from the Latin word for sleeping room, dormitorium, dormers are named after the rooms in which they were typically employed.” You’ll almost always see dormers used on second-floor and attic spaces, which are typically used as bedrooms.

“The interior alcove created by a dormer is often utilized as a space for a bed,” adds Sullivan. And what kid didn’t dream of a little nook with pillows and cushions, perfect for reading while daydreaming out the window?

Credit: Miles Nelson/
A Mansard roof with dormers

What are the types of dormers?

Most often, Betesh says, dormers have either a single pitch shed roof, double pitch gable roof, or a triple pitch hip roof. A shed roof is often seen on Craftsman homes, with a single pitch roof over a sometimes elongated window. The gable roof dormer has two sides intersecting at the top — think of the way you used to draw a house as a child. A hip roof on a dormer has three sides, or pitches, and is often seen when the house also has a hip roof. 

However, Bob Zuber, AIA and partner at Morgante Wilson Architects, explains that there are many other styles of dormers like a Mansard, with its ornate detailing, an eyebrow, with a curved roof like an eyebrow, extended shed, often seen on Dutch Colonials, and even a recessed dormer, which lives entirely inside the angle of the roof.

Additionally, there are more obscure types of dormers, many which translate to a hyper-specific architectural style, including “bonneted,” “Lucarne,” and “Nantucket.”

What is the difference between a gable and a dormer?

Gable is a shape, while a dormer is an architectural element. “A gable is just a triangular wall form created by two intersecting roof pitches, whereas a dormer is a vertical projection above the roof line,” Sullivan explains. While a dormer can be gabled if it has two intersecting pitched roof lines, it does not have to be.