Deep Dive: How the A-Frame Became the New American Dream
An extremely thorough look at the past, present, and future of arguably the most iconic building form in human history (a claim I'm making rn)
Photo courtesy Kelsey Johnson
Howdy. For our first official Cabins Etc Deep Dive^tm we’re going straight to the source of so, so many cabin dreams. I’m talking A-frames, everyone’s favorite funky cabin form.
The iconic triangular design has endured for millennia, evolving from rudimentary shelter built by cavemen to archetypal vacation home to embarrassing roadside attraction to modern symbol of leisure to well, a damn Starbucks in Saudi Arabia.
In this issue of Cabins Etc, we’ll explore what, how, and why now (again). Helping illustrate the genuinely wild history of the A-frame will be our friend Chad Randl, author of seminal book A-frame and the subject’s unofficial-but-sort-of-official archivist. Randl’s a real deal academic who studies the cultural forces that make ideas popular, and that makes them just as quickly change. He’s been researching A-frames since 1999—in his estimate, he’s logged “thousands of hours” on the subject to date. For further proof of his legit-ness, his official title is Art DeMuro Assistant Professor in the Historic Preservation Program, College of Design, at the University of Oregon (my alma mater, go Ducks!) and previously taught at Cornell University and has worked as an architectural historian for the National Park Service. Plus, he has a PhD and had a Fischer Price A-frame set as a kid.
We’ll also nerd out real hard and share insight from the many A-frame articles I’ve edited over the years at Field Mag. Because, well, there’s a lot of them, and a few are even worth reading. (Jk jk they’re all worth reading, just ask the million+ viewers our top five A-frame articles have garnered over the past five years alone.) We've been obsessed with these weird cabins and we stay informing fellow cabin dreamers with that Grade A, historically significant inspo.
So let’s get into it.
Heady First Q: What makes A-frames so d*mn popular?
For us, right now, the answer could simply be that the A-frame form screams “vacation time!” And as we end year two of covid-times, we could all use more of that. fr.
But in the 1950s and 60s, during the A-frame’s initial heyday, novelty did the trick. “It didn't look like a regular house, like a ranch house, or a suburban home. It didn't look like traditional housing in general,” Randl tells me. “And the whimsy—it was new in its function as a recreation setting, a design that was appropriate for cabins and huts and places to get away from the city.”
Historically—like, waaaay back in time—it was less about what the form represented and more about what it did—and with ease. “It’s original appearance was as vernacular structures around the world,” Randl continues. “It was largely utilitarian—an easy way to enclose space with materials at hand—as a form of shelter, for either human or for animal occupation, or for storing hay or whatever.”
On the whole, it’s all of the above.
“It has meant different things to different builders and occupants at different places at different times,“ says Randl, in the perfect way only a PhD holding professor of architectural preservation could. “It accommodates all of these different ideas and interests, whether it's tiny houses or vacation getaways or utilitarian shelters. And it's the adaptability of this form that has contributed to its enduring popularity.”
(That and, you know, a healthy dose of quasi-late capitalism)
L to R: Japanese Farmhouse, courtesy | Maori meeting house, courtesy the Khan Acadamy
Vernacular What? 1200-year-old Japanese Farmhouses & Spiritual Meeting Centers
There’s no real way to know if the modern design enthusiasts of the 1950s and ‘60s paid much attention to the historic precedents of the traditional pitched roof shelters found around the world. These vernacular structures (meaning, architecture of ordinary people, concerned only with function, as opposed to ornamentation) have been found around the world, from Switzerland and Portugal to China and Southeast Asia. Regardless, it’s important to give credit where due—plus some of these OG designs are really quite cool.
In 12th century Japan farmers built towering multi-story A-frame houses (pictured above left) with meter-thick straw roofs to withstand harsh winters in the alpine valleys of the mountainous central mainland. Meanwhile, in New Zealand, well before contact with Europeans, indigenous Maori built low slung, sacred community meeting houses called marae (above right).
Regardless of location or source of inspiration, the underlying theme of all A-shaped structures is one of intuitive, accessible, and functional design. It’s quick to put up, efficient with materials, and the pitched roof naturally sheds snow, rain, and wind—ideal for alpine environments and tropical areas alike.
The A-frame was born of practicality. But it's the form’s versatility and marketability that made it a star.
Mid-Century Boom: Modern Designers Get Weird
Though the post-war boom is ultimately responsible for the rise of the A-frame as a household design concept, one 1934 design by Rudolph Schindler, an Austrian-American protégé of Frank Lloyd Wright, is often credited as the first modern A-frame home. Located in Lake Arrowhead, California, (Sidebar: Lake Arrowhead? What a perfectly illustrative name/location for this early A-frame), the wood-framed, all-roof structure featured a double-height living room with a loft, lots of glass, plywood walls, exposed rafters, and a prominent local rock foundation; i.e. the archetypal A-frame.
But the A-frame fervor didn’t quite catch on until after WWII, when America saw unprecedented economic and population growth, and the invention of the “vacation home.” At that time in post-war America, the middle class had more disposable income and more free time than middle classes had before, thanks in large part to returning servicemen gaining free and easy access to higher education and affordable mortgages.
"The A-frame was the right shape at the right time,” writes Randl in A-frame. “It was the era of the 'second everything,' when postwar prosperity made second televisions, second bathrooms, and second cars expected accoutrements of middle-class American life. Next, signs at the hardware store and ads in popular magazines declare, 'Every family needs two homes! ... one for the work-week, one for pure pleasure.'"
And if you’re gonna build a second home, it better be different. Enter the A-frame, a more playful, more informal structural form that felt new in every way.
(It’s important to note redlining and other examples of institutional racism prevented most Black Americans from joining in on the generational wealth building that this period of economic prosperity kickstarted for white families.)
During this time, architects and developers interested in modernist design saw promise in the A-frame as an adaptable structure that fits especially well in rugged landscapes like mountains, hillsides, and deserts. “It got picked up by people like Schindler and others that saw the triangular-ness as something that resonated with their interests in more pure forms,” Randl continues. “The blocky, pure geometries and volumes stripped away a lot of the ornament and historical reference. It was seen as an appropriate structure for modern recreation.”
Campbell’s “Leisure House” in Mill Valley 1952 | Sunset Magazine featuring Perlman Squaw Valley A-frame, 1957, courtesy Aframe
One of the most significant (and one of my personal favorite) A-frames of the early era is the perfectly named Leisure House, introduced by San Francisco architects John Campbell and Worley Wong in 1950. Featured in several magazines, the house caused quite a stir. So much so Campbell and Wong created, and subsequently marketed the hell out of, a DIY Leisure House kit. Selling for ~$900 (roughly $10k in 2022 money), the A-frame kit came complete with pre-cut wood, build instructions, and everything else two adults would need to build the house in two days.
Notable as a clean, modern interpretation of the A, but perhaps more so for the architects’ aggressive marketing and franchised approach to selling cabins, the kit sold for 20 years before fading into obscurity.
($900!! Smdh they didn’t even know how good they had it back then.)
Other truly fantastic examples of early mid-century modern A-frame designs include David Perlman’s double A-frame in Lake Tahoe (above left) and Andrew Geller’s Southampton, NY A-frame for client and friend Betty Reese (above right), both constructed in 1955. They're two very different designs—Perlman’s a ski chalet with a T-shaped floor plan, Geller’s a modest one-room structure with extruding deck just feet from the Atlantic, built for under $9,000—and two inspiring examples of the creative, adaptive solutions one can find within the ever-present A volume.
Each deserves a newsletter of their own tbh. (Rumor has it, a newsletter on Andrew Geller’s insane beach houses is already in the works.)
L to R: Sunset cabin plans book, 1962, from the author’s private collection | Popular Mechanics magazine, 1966
A National Phenomenon: Cabin Kits & Plan Books Make A-frames Accessible (and then cliché)
Inspired by the Leisure House business model and propelled by an economy that just wouldn’t quit, innumerable A-frame kits and plan books by designers, architects, and backyard builders landed in mailboxes and in hardware stores in the decades to follow.
The craze continued to grow through the early 1970’s with companies and institutions ranging from Sears to the Douglas Fir Plywood Association offering prefab A-Frame kits.
Marketing ploys conjuring up the image of a low-maintenance, low-cost, high-brow type of living were commonplace in lifestyle magazine editorials and advertisements. Kits became available throughout North America, as they could easily be tailored to the client and the local environment, were affordable, and relatively easy for any Joe Schmo to assemble in a few weekends with friends. With these kits, up to eighty percent of the construction was out of the hands of contractors and architects and in the hands of the client. For better or worse.
Today companies like DEN and Backcountry Hut Company continue the tradition, offering micro A-frame kits and cabin plans to kindred spirits looking to build their own minimalist retreat, whether in their backyard or on a private island.
(Reminder: Become a Certified Cabin Lover tier subscriber to receive future deep dives into topics like DIY Cabin Kits and how to buy land, which, trust me, are coming soon.)
L to R: Saudi Arabia Starbucks, 2020, courtesy u/KardioJunkie | Texas Whataburger, 1961, courtesy Aframe
Jumping the Shark: From Must-Have to Kitsch (in like, a bad way)
What goes up, must come down. By the mid 1970’s A-frames were everywhere. The evolution from upscale resort communities to low-brow roadside attractions (shout-out Whataburger and Travelers restaurant chain, which admittedly looks really sick, pictured above left and right, respectively) caused mainstream opinion to dip. Over-saturation turned the A-frame from novelty to tacky. As the 1970s gave way to the heavy consumption era of the '80s and '90s, new construction of A-Frames essentially came to a halt.
Lavish condos rapidly replaced second homes, resort towns began catering almost exclusively to the ultra-affluent, and many leisure areas became inundated with homogeneous, spiritless complexes and extravagant single family homes. The urge to build something new, unique, or even useful all but disappeared.
From Marin to Montauk, Aspen to Jackson Hole, once-bohemian enclaves across North America were rapidly transformed into luxe resort towns for haves. And boy did/do the haves have! Long before the Boomers lost their marbles to Facebook misinfo, children who grew up amid the modern design revolution found previous generations had, by and large, never quite realized the potential value of waterfront property, easily accessible mountainous land, etc. And so throughout the '70s, '80s, and '90s, many Baby Boomers of even modest means got busy buying up America’s most desirable (by 2022 standards) land and real estate, which at that time was still readily available and comparatively cheap. In the process, Boomers acquired more wealth than any generation before or after them has or ever will likely hold. Cue the next section!
L to R: Backcountry Hut Company A-frame Kit, rendering courtesy BHC | DEN A-frame Kit, photo by Graham Hiemstra
Recession, Rebirth, Pandemic: All this bad might make some good. Maybe?
Then, between 2007 and 2009 the housing market came crashing down, the economy tanked, student loan debt ballooned, and hard working Americans of all socioeconomic backgrounds saw their dreams of owning a large single family home sliding out of reach. We all know the story. The American Dream is dead, blah blah blah.
Out of necessity, a more minimalist and refined approach to home design followed the Great Recession. Many "alternative lifestyles" moved from fringe to accepted within the greater culture. Some renovated shipping containers, others converted old vans into mobile homes, and more cut square footage in half, opting to downsize to a tiny house or micro cabin. From the acceleration of these movements to the arrival of Zach Klein’s cult Tumblr Cabin Porn in the 2010s (and the subsequent coffee table books in 2015 and 2019, which have together sold over 300,000 copies worldwide), a new idea was born as the picture of conventional living spaces shifted for Millennials and Zoomers.
Then the Pandemic hit, and, here we go again. Owning a home for many young adults is now even farther out of reach. Median home prices nationwide have risen by an astonishing 25% since March 2020. The old, measured rules of home-buying no longer apply—cutthroat competitiveness that once defined only a few U.S. markets (San Francisco, New York, Los Angeles) has now become standard across the country. Median home prices in small- and medium-size metropolitan areas rose by jaw-dropping levels: Boise, 46%; Phoenix, 36%; Austin, 35%; Salt Lake City, 33%.
And so, we start to wonder: If owning a first home is literally impossible, why not jump straight to buying or building a second home? One that’s modest in size and humble in material. One that could be co-owned with friends and/or rented on Airbnb to help cover costs. While we doom scroll on the toilet, the picture of a little cabin in the woods begins to look real nice. And not just any cabin, but a kitschy little A-frame with twinkly lights strung up the roofline. Sh*t, I want that!
Hello Wood Grand A-frame Kit, courtesy Hello Wood
When it’s all bad out there, we want the good! The goofy, the playful, the unusual. The A-frame is all that. Plus, due to its uniform shape and all-roof design, it requires less materials and less labor to build. And its double height living space makes a tiny footprint feel spacious. Dream medium, build small!
Everyone from ye olde Field Mag to Dwell to the Architect’s Newspaper—even the freakin New York Post—is yelling the same thing: A-frames are back, baby! Everything that’s old is new again.
On YouTube DIY cabin build time lapses and how-to tutorials teach armchair builders how to build a backyard cabin in two months, or an off-grid A-frame for just $10k! Cabin aggregator accounts on twitter and IG inspire. @aframedaily is well curated. And @aframedreams posts A-frames for sale around the country. I’m sure there’s cabin content on TikTok, but this aging millennial doesn’t have the energy to find it. So let’s just assume it’s there, and thriving.
This is where we leave things. With an insatiable yearning for escape, and supply chains issues f*cking everything up. But hey, there’s hope yet. In the coming weeks we’ll explore how cabins continue to inform culture–and vice versa—and how it might actually be possible for us all to own a little slice of cabin life someday, be it pie-shaped or otherwise. (You can always just rent one, too.)
We’ll be chatting with world famous photographers on how building cabins is helping them escape the horrendous social media promotion cycle, and with an Airbnb expert on how to develop your own short-term rental empire, among other cabin-y topics. We’ll even be giving away a full set of cabin plans from our friends at DEN.
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