Dormers: The early tax-evasion trick

Technically speaking, a dormer is a structural element that projects vertically from a building’s sloping roof plane to provide daylight, ventilation or additional headroom under the structural framing. Aesthetically speaking, dormers animate the roofs of our buildings by adding visual texture through the shade, shadow, color and design variety they offer.

While dormers are often part of the original construction, later additions brought on by expansion or social pressures to update outdated styles are not uncommon.

During the 1700s when Colonists were taxed by the number of stories on their homes, dormers were added to their roofs to render the attics livable, but not subject to tax — an early form of tax evasion. “Dormer” derives from the Latin word “dormitorium,” or “sleeping room.”

Dormers are differentiated by their shape and design. There are six primary types: gable, flathead, hipped, segmental, arched and eyebrow. Beyond the six primary types, there are variations, combinations and unique configurations that make dormers one of the most interesting design elements on a building.

Names like jerkinhead, spreadhead, flathead, eyelid, frogs-eye, dog-house, wall dormer, pediment gable, Nantucket, cross gable and composite are just a few of the variations. There are even “blind” dormers — dormers that are only visible from the exterior and placed only for aesthetic reasons.

Dormers appear on almost every residential style of architecture from Georgian and Federal to Queen Anne and Chateauesque. The details and personalities vary widely across the styles, but the results are almost always the same: access to daylight.

  • Are there other names for this design feature?

Small dormers found on roofs and steeples are referred to as lucarnes.

  • What materials are used to construct dormers?

Wood and masonry are the most common materials.

  • Where can they be found?


Dormers can be found on virtually every residential style of architecture; each has a unique design personality.

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