What Is Fenestration? - Definition & Architecture

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  • 0:03 What Is Fenestration?
  • 0:52 Fenestration and…
  • 2:55 Fenestration and…
  • 4:20 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Christopher Muscato

Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.

There are many components of a successful building, not the least of which is its fenestration. In this lesson, we'll explore this concept and see how it impacts both design and practical elements of architecture.

What Is Fenestration?

Turtles do not have many holes in their skulls. Humans, on the other hand, have a few. Why does this matter? While the skull is strong, it's also heavy. Holes in the skull make it lighter, without compromising its strength. We call these holes fenestrae, from the Latin word for windows. Like a skull, a building or any other support structure needs to be strong, but also lightweight enough to let us make them larger and more spacious. A larger skull can hold a bigger brain, and a larger building can hold more brains, or at least more people. In architecture, fenestration refers to the openings in a building's facade, most notably the doors and windows. Basically, they are anything that allows for passage from outside to inside. Turns out, holes in the structure can actually be pretty useful.

Fenestration and Practical Concerns

Architecture is an art form that's equal parts design and functionality, so we need to first talk about how fenestration impacts a structure in a practical sense. Have you ever seen an ancient Roman temple? They have an impressive entryway, but not much in the way of windows. Why? It is because fenestration can weaken the stability of a wall. After all, you can't load weight onto a hole.

Ancient builders struggled to erect large structures with many fenestrations, but modern architects have it much easier. Thanks to things like steel frames, which are stronger and distribute weight differently, we can create larger and more numerous openings in the facades of large structures.

This doesn't mean, of course, that constructing fenestrations doesn't provide challenges to the modern architect. Besides those elements of design we always need to consider, there are practical concerns. For starters, fenestration can greatly impact the functionality of a building. A shop owner whose store is on a busy walkway will likely want lots of windows in the front to show off their wares and attract customers.


Note the different uses in fenestration between the lower-story shops and the upper-story apartments.

On the other hand, a suburban homeowner may want fewer windows, particularly in places like the bathroom. We have to keep the balance of privacy versus publicity in mind.

One other practical matter to consider is the effect of light. Natural light is beautiful, generally better for your eyes, and can reduce electrical bills by reducing the need for artificial lighting. However, light can also equal heat. South-facing windows can allow light to naturally heat a house, but are easily controlled by overhanging eaves that block the hot, midday sun. East- and west-facing windows, on the other hand, are more likely to receive direct sunlight for at least half the day and can considerably increase heat and glare inside a building. So, if you want natural light but don't want to be constantly running your air conditioning, more fenestration on the south side of the building, rather than east, is advisable.

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