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A Definitive Guide to the A-Frame House: History, How to Build & More

A comprehensive guide to all things A-Frame—from a brief history to structural benefits, building tips, and cabin kits

A Definitive Guide to the A-Frame House: History, How to Build & More

Author

Katherine Englishman

Leisure House by John Campbell, 1950
Katherine is a freelance writer and yoga teacher based in the beautiful state of Maine. She likes cabins, beer, and being outside.

Maybe you’re a lot like us here at Field Mag and spend way too much time thinking, daydreaming, and planning your next weekend getaway to a dreamy A-Frame home somewhere far away. Over the course of time, the A-Frame has proven itself to be the ultimate escape for those who love the outdoors and good design (we’re raising our hands) and its functional, beautiful design has inspired another wave of popularity today.

Yet, after all of the fantasizing, owning an A-Frame is simply the most reasonable and ideal way to permanently fill the pyramid-shaped void in your life. As it turns out, it’s not too hard, and yes, there are few things to know beforehand, but there’s no arguing that this will change your life for the better. So, whether you plan to buy, build, or just want to know a little bit more about why the A-Frame house continues to steal our hearts, this article is for you.

So, take a break, grab a cup of something and learn all you may need to manifest an A-Frame of your own.

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Snoqualmie Pass A-Frame

PT 1. What exactly is an A-Frame?

Structurally speaking, an A-frame is a triangular-shaped home with a series of rafters or trusses that are joined at the peak and descend outward to the main floor with no intervening vertical walls. Although some may vary, the typical A-frame has a roofline that connects at a sixty-degree angle to create an equilateral triangle. The resulting vaulted ceiling inside organically drives the layout of a typical A-Frame house plan: an open and airy sleeping loft space upstairs and a downstairs in which the kitchen, living room, and dining area are located. The A-Frame house may not have a whole lot of wall, but the high ceilings make for an open and spacious-feeling living space nonetheless.

While its recognizable form has earned the A-Frame its Timeless Design badge, it’s just as famous for its function as a practical piece of architecture with numerous possibilities beneath its steep roof. Both in modern design and post-war America, the A-frame has grown to become synonymous with relaxation and recreation — the ultimate place to escape from the daily grind, with a simple and no-frills design that makes it work in most any landscape (more on that later). However, it seems most at home in rugged backcountry terrain or somewhere more elemental than the city and suburbs. In both years past and today, the A-Frame and its associated lifestyle conjurs up a romantic daydream of escape, all with an undeniably simple and affordable design.

Despite the variations and interpretations throughout the decades, the main design characteristics of an A-frame haven’t drastically changed over the years, and even now, its enduring form is experiencing an upswell in popularity which has warranted an exhaustive article such as this. So, to all the A-frame lovers out there, you’re welcome.

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The Reese House by Andrew Geller

A Brief History of the A-Frame

The history of the A-frame extends back much further in time than its decade-defining debut in the ‘50s and ‘60s would lead many to believe. This is totally understandable, given that most people would associate it with that retro aprés ski or lakefront vacation home aesthetic that is mimicked in many modern-day As. If you want to call yourself a true historian of the A-frame, it’s important to understand that it has roots in some of the most ancient cultures around the world, including, the traditional Japanese farmhouses of Shirakawa-go, Japan to Maori meeting houses (marae) to the rural outbuildings and ski chalets of Switzerland. For the marae, the triangular structures took on a more sacred meaning, by doubling as a shelter and a personification of tribal ancestors.

The proliferation of the A-frame evolved out of the practical and rudimentary dwellings of these people and their cultures into what we know them as today: an aesthetically-pleasing second home. They made their way stateside in 1934 when Austrian-born architect Rudolph Schindler built one for his client Gisela Bennati in Lake Arrowhead, California. Thus, beginning the age of the A in America. During this time of economic growth and more interest in outdoor recreation, architecture and cultural trends were colliding as well. Vacation homes were in many ways, representative of the American Dream, and some of the most creative designs of the day were second homes in scenic places. So, in a lot of ways, the A-frame home was the right shape at the right time.

Yet, A-frames have always adapted to the needs of the modern-day, and a new breed of these vacation homes emerged during 2007’s great recession. Except, this time, its renaissance was due to its more minimalist and refined approach to home design that aptly reflected the desire for an affordable, and for some homeowners, alternative way of life. This proved that the A-frame’s ability to evolve and remain relevant is what makes it a mainstay in cultures around the world.

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Hudson Valley Ancram A-Frame

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Poconos Little A-Frame

What are the benefits of an A-Frame house?

There’s a reason the A-Frame has a universal appeal: whether you’re a family looking for a cozy getaway or a non-conformist in search of the next best basecamp, it does a lot with a little. This is in large part due to its triangular shape that eliminates the need for additional forms of support, creating a secure structure with the least amount of material. Ever the maximizing minimalist, the A is versatile, sturdy, and utilitarian by nature. A timeless build, A-Frames are strong on the outside and uber-cozy on the inside, with plenty of room to let your imagination run wild when it comes to everything else.

The same qualities that make it versatile for different lifestyles, wants, and needs are also what makes it work so well in various climates. In snowy regions, the benefits of an A-Frame’s angled roof prevents snow and ice from accumulating and instead, slides off its steep pitch, and it has great insulation in cold weather climates to trap heat and keep you warm. Large windows used for the facade of an A-Frame not only provide panoramic views but let in plenty of natural light, heating the inside of the home during the day — that is, when you’re not enjoying a fire in the evening.

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Whistler A-Frame

In the summer or in places that are warm year-round, the A-Frame does just as well. If it’s not already in place, consider adding ventilation to the home so that as heat rises, the lower levels will stay cool, and hot air can escape. Since most of the time is spent on the ground floor of the dwelling, this works well, and the ventilation provides a good way to maintain climate control and prevent moisture from getting trapped in the house.

And finally, the relatively simple structure of the A-Frame makes it scalable and easy to alter. It isn’t all that challenging to add dormers, skylights, a porch, or even a larger addition to expand the entire structure. The A-Frame is endlessly versatile and easy to modify, so you keep in mind that there is often room to customize this structure to suit your wants and needs.

A quick recap of the main benefits of an A-Frame house:

  • Timeless architectural style
  • Simple, minimalist design
  • Secure and strong structure
  • Requires fewer materials
  • Adaptable and versatile
  • Good insulation
  • Works well in cold and warm climates
  • Scalable build
  • More affordable than a classic four wall home

The downside of A-Frame houses is that it has a modest floor plan and less interior space as a result of the angled walls. This presents challenges like limited wall, living, and storage space and window frames that can only be placed on the vertical front and back of the house. On the upside, this limitation can inspire some creative problem-solving, which really isn’t such a bad thing at all.

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Hello Wood Grand Cabin

How much does an A-Frame house cost?

In comparison to a standard home, an A-Frame is a budget-friendly option because it requires less materials and supplies (there’s one less wall than a four wall home), can be scaled up or down, and with some good planning and a little strategy is accessible for most DIYers to tackle. Take Andrew Szeto, for example, a Canadian woodworker who built his own A-Frame house for less than ten-thousand American dollars. Not too shabby, huh?

That said, it also depends on whether you are buying an existing A-Frame, building one from the ground up, or purchasing a pre-fab kit. It’s also dependent on your ideal A-Frame: are you going for a cozy ski chalet or a grand massif? Know that what you want will dictate the cost, but for the most part, A-Frames are budget-friendly.

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Den A-Frame Bunk Cabin

Is An A-Frame House Energy-Efficient?

Luckily, the best materials for an A-Frame house are what make them environmentally friendly. So, yes, A-Frame houses can be energy efficient, but it depends on the construction. It can be relatively easy to minimize the home’s carbon footprint because to echo some of the earlier points made, A-Frames require much less building materials and most commonly use timber materials to build the home. Timber that is sustainably-harvested and not treated with any harmful chemicals will ensure a more conscious build, and there are plenty of ways to make more eco-friendly design choices inside and out.

A-Frames are also well-insulated. As mentioned before, thanks to its architectural design, heating and cooling an A-Frame is a naturally energy-efficient process on its own. As long as there are no major energy leaks and good ventilation, this structure doesn’t require much help! Consider adding solar panels to harness the power of the sun or putting on a metal roof on your A-Frame to help deflect some of the sun’s rays and keep your interior cool without running electricity when it gets warm.

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A-Frame by Heather Scott

PT 2. So you want to build an A-Frame?

Building an A-Frame house from the ground up is a dreamy project for design lovers who are looking for a project that brings it back to nature. It’s accessible and can be cost-efficient as long as you know how to do it and where to start. There are two ways to build an A-Frame house: take the Do-It-Yourself approach and build from scratch, or purchase a prefab A-Frame kit that provides you with the plans and materials you need to make it happen.

Both options work well, but it depends largely on your specific budget and how much time you’re able to put into the project. Our friends at DEN, a New York-based design studio that offers a full DIY A-Frame cabin kit, are experts on this subject. To help you get started, they recommend asking yourself the following questions before making the decision to either build your own A-Frame or purchase a prefab kit:

  • How do you plan to use the space?
  • How many rooms do you need and what are their uses?
  • What is your budget and how many square feet can you afford?
  • Does this size accommodate any future plans you have for the space?
  • Am I being as respectful as possible to the land on which I plan to build?
  • Does this size conform to what's permitted to be built in accordance with local zoning requirements?
  • Does the neighborhood, property, and additional costs like well, septic, and driveway support the size house you're choosing, from an investment perspective?

Answering these questions for yourself is essential in determining the next best steps to build your own A-Frame house. As DEN points out, it is crucial not to forget to factor in the land your building on. In many ways, A-Frames are an embodiment of treading lightly and living harmoniously within your natural surroundings; building an A-Frame that doesn’t quite fit into the landscape can negatively impact on the environment and lead you to spend more time trying to force an idea to come to life, rather than embrace the malleable and easygoing nature of an A-Frame house. In short, keep it simple, make sure it complements the landscape and is a reflection of your style, not just something seen on Pinterest or Instagram.

So, once you’ve figured that part out, it’s time to weigh your options and decide: Prefab or DIY build? Let’s break down the two even further.

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Backcountry Hut Compnay Hut System 00

Prefab Kits

There are a handful of reputable A-Frame cabin kit makers in North America, and worldwide, from Europe to Asia and Oceania (scroll down to see our full list of A-Frame cabin kits below) that offer different sizes and prices ranging from around $1k all the way up to $149,000 for a fully-prepared kit.

While these kits are trending now, they rose in popularity from the ‘50s to the ‘70s when A-Frame cabin kits were sold across North America and much of Europe by everyone from SEARS to aluminum and plywood manufacturers, during the heyday of A-Frames as vacation houses. Hailed as a design adaptable to almost any environment, and capable of being built by just a few handy people with minimal building materials and experience in just a week's time, the A-Frame began popping up everywhere as it continues to do today.

There are plenty of benefits to choosing an A-Frame cabin kit, with two primary reasons being the prepped materials and a ready-made plan, but there is also the subject of time and reliability. Using a modular A-Frame house design saves you the hassle of drawing up plans yourself which is good news if you are new to the process and short on time. Some contemporary cabin kits can be completed on a long weekend with as few as 2-3 people. That’s not to say that assembling a kit doesn’t require the assistance of skilled professionals, some heavy machinery, and construction materials. A word to the wise: map out your process first and find a trusted local builder with the necessary skills and experience to help set up your A-Frame kit. Even the most straightforward plans could involve a forklift and foundation pouring, so it’s best not to underestimate the workload and plan ahead.

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Nolla Zero A-Frame

The Best A-Frame Prefab Kits

Having well-crafted plans with the right materials can eliminate all the stress that comes with building your own A-Frame, but the downside is less opportunity to customize your build, which may or may not be a priority. Luckily, there are prefab kits on the market from companies that offer high-quality, design-minded, and affordable options. Here are some of our top picks.

DEN - The New York-based design studio makes one of our favorite full DIY A-Frame cabin kits, shipping flat packed with everything needed for assembly, for just $21,000 USD.

BACKCOUNTRY HUTS - British Columbia, Canada-based Backcountry Hut Company created three distinct, modular cabin designs—Systems 00, 01, and 02—each capable of being shipped pre-cut , flat-pack, and assembled almost anywhere in North America.

AVRAME - Avrame offers 11 A-Frame kit designs to choose from their Solo, Duo, or Trio series, each scaled to the company’s suggested use—from saunas to guesthouse, to family-sized three-bedroom homes with dormers and roof-mounted solar panels.

LUSHNA - Specializing in supplying cost-efficient wood structures for eco-tourist glamping destinations, Slovenia-based Lushna makes A-shaped micro cabins and sauna kits for easy installation pretty much anywhere.

MADI -The MADI Home is an incredibly clever, modular A-Frame design that comes flat packed and can be completely installed in just six hours. Seriously, just six hours.

EVERYWHERE SHELTER CO. AYFRAYM - What AYFRAYM lacks in customizable options, it makes up with multiple options for buyers in various financial positions. The cheapest route is a simple set of digital floor plans for $1,350. From there you can step up to purchase a comprehensive DIY cabin kit for $149k, which arrives in the form of a fully packed 40’ x 8’ shipping container, ready for assembly.

NOLLA ZERO - The Nolla Zero prefab cabin is renewable-energy powered and minimalism driven, cutting a striking image into its surroundings while leaving little impact on the earth at just 97 square feet.

HELLO WOOD - The unique, expandable cabin concept by Hungarian design studio Hello Wood may soon ship to the U.S. for around $70k.

BIVVI - A Portland, Oregon-based design company that champions accessibility, sustainability, and mobility with prefab architecture. Their first cabin is just big enough to fit a queen bed, but there’s plenty of options to customize the space to fit your needs.

KLEIN A45 TINY HOUSE - Designed by renowned architect, Bjarke Ingels, the Klein A45 is a small, sleek cabin made from sustainable materials, suitable for an office, a getaway, or artist haven.

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A-Frame by Andrew Szeto

DIY

Building your own A-Frame house can take months in comparison to the much shorter timeframe of assembling an A-Frame prefab kit in just a few days and requires significant skills, tools, and experience. The tradeoff is that you get to do what you want without the limitations of premade plans. Is building your own A-Frame cheaper than buying a prefab kit? Not necessarily, the cost of land, building supplies, materials, and even labor might not come cheap, but it is possible to build an A-Frame house without spending too much money if that’s your aim.

When it comes to doing it right, there’s no better expert to tell you what to do and what not to do than Andrew Szeto. An Ottawa, Ontario-based skater, outdoorsman, and woodworker, Szeto is proof that anyone can build the cabin of their dreams with hard work and good friends. We were impressed by how he was able to build his A-Frame house for only $8,000 USD, so there’s plenty to learn in this list of his best tips and tricks for how to build an A-Frame house below.

10 Do’s & Don’ts for Building An A-Frame House

  • DO build bigger! Would have been amazing if it were double the size.

  • DO research land and where you want to buy ASAP! Things only seem to be getting more expensive the longer you wait.

  • DO save up! Building materials and land aren't cheap.

  • DO find a mentor! There's a wealth of experience out there, whether it's in person or on YouTube. Leverage what you can!

  • DO document your process! People love seeing this kinda stuff and I personally can't wait to look back on these videos 10-20 years down the road!

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A-Frame by Andrew Szeto

  • DON'T use thin plywood as your interior. I started with this and I thought it would save time and we'd slam up 4x8 pieces without any problems, but I was wrong. It's a mess to put up and if things don't line up, it's a pain. I'm much happier with my tongue and groove pine!

  • DON'T rush things. Certain sealants and spray cans only work in warmer temperatures, so it's worth planning ahead and taking your time. There's a lot of frustration in making unnecessary trips and lugging materials, only to not be able to use them.

  • DON'T not dress appropriately for your climate. I know you're stoked to build and working against a bit of a schedule, but there were a few days where I initially went up without thicker winter boots and felt like I was getting frostbite. Fortunately, my neighbor came over with an extra set and saved my feet!

  • DON'T just build on top of the land as is. I am kicking myself a bit now, but we really should have at least leveled the land and tamped it down prior to starting. As many folks have mentioned, with the freeze-thaw cycles, things are subject to some movement. I really should have put some more time into this.

  • DON'T use Polycarbonate roofing. This one is subjective, but unfortunately, the polycarbonate roofing that I had on my outhouse barrel did not last a season. We suspect hail was the cause of several holes and cracks in the relatively new roof, but it ended up being a wasted expense for us, unfortunately.

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Bivvi A-Frame Cabin

Life in an A-Frame

Despite the ebb and flow of the A-Frame house’s popularity over time, its charm has never wavered. It’s functionality, timeless aesthetic, and rich history shows that the A-Frame house is here to stay — or at least make another comeback in a few decades.

Aside from the nuts and bolts of building your own, the upside of an A-Frame is that you can always find little (or big) ways to make it even better, like adding a prefab Finnish sauna or a wood-fired hot tub that’s got room for you and all your friends. However you choose to do it, spending time in an A-Frame should always be a clear and constant reminder that the best things in life can often come in simple, well-designed, triangular-shaped packages.

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Australia Eco A-Frame

Published 12-29-2020

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