A-List Architecture: Why an A-Frame Cabin is an Ideal Second Home

As well suited to snowy terrains as to woody countryside, A-frames are the architecture of choice for modern vacation homeowners

There’s something distinctly Instagrammable about an A-frame cabin, a fact that has given rise to accounts such as Cabin Love, Cabin Porn, and The Cabin Chronicles, which boast more than half a million followers each. So, it’s easy to see why the demand for such simple, but often extraordinary, architecture is on the up.

“With the complexities of our digital daily lives, there is a strong need for a countering simplicity,” says architect David Scott of Scott & Scott in Vancouver, Canada. “Retreating to a place in the forest, for example, where there’s the opportunity to take a brisk walk, to light a fire, or enjoy a warm meal with family and friends, can help provide balance.”

An A-frame cabin surrounded by snowy mountains
A-frame structures withstand the demands of harsh terrain and weather, such as Whistler Cabin near Whistler Village in British Columbia—where snowfall averages 38.2 feet (11.6 m) a year—designed by Scott & Scott Architects.

Jerry Caldari of Bromley Caldari architects in New York City agrees. “An A-frame building is very simple to inhabit,” he says. “The floor plan, ease of heating and cooling, and economical use of materials and space allow for a modern way of life that’s free from all the usual excess.”

Plan for Perfection

Characterized by a steeply angled roof that slopes almost to the ground, A-frame buildings have been popular in various formats for many years in Europe, China, and the South Pacific. But it wasn’t until the 1950s that interest in this type of home really began to grow in North America, when the post-war economic boom meant that many people had more disposable income for vacations and vacation properties.

The adaptability of the structure was also a draw, as was its inexpensive nature, which enabled architects to be more creative and to experiment with designs. So fashionable were A-frame houses that prefabricated kits became available, further lowering the cost, and although these are still an option today, the devil really is in the detail.

An oceanside A-frame home with pool
A-Frame ReThink on Fire Island, New York, was designed by Bromley Caldari Architects, which ensured its construction maximized the surrounding ocean views and exposures to the changing light of the day.

“While the nature of an A-frame cabin lends itself to a kit, it’s important to realize that the terrain, the location of mature trees, and the precise positioning of windows to outline views and let in light all require site-specific consideration,” Scott explains. Careful internal planning is also key within the limitations of a smaller footprint but, nevertheless, a compact A-frame build can easily be configured to make a perfect second home.

Winter Wonders

One of the most significant pros of an A-frame structure is its suitability for use in snowy environments. “Snow is easily shed from a steep roof while maintaining free access to the front and rear,” explains Scott. “A-frame retreats are also ideal on mountains where slopes make sites challenging, and there’s a strength and warmth that emerges when form and materials work with the more intense requirements of harsh terrain and weather.”

An example of this is the practice’s Whistler Cabin, which sits on a steep rock bluff in a quiet area north of Whistler village in British Columbia. Built as a weekend retreat for a family of snowboarders, the 1,916-square-foot (178 sq m) lodge is designed to blend in with surrounding cabins that date back to the 1970s.

The wooden-clad interior and kitchen of Whistler Cabin
With its exposed interior of Douglas fir, Whistler Cabin echoes the builds of other chalets in the area. All materials were locally sourced, including the marble in this kitchen.

Whistler Cabin’s locally sourced materials include red cedar shingles, which are used to clad the property, while the exposed internal frame of Douglas fir houses a drying room for ski gear and plentiful storage for equipment. The airy living and kitchen spaces boast counters made from marble sourced at the Hisnet Inlet quarry on Vancouver Island. A top-floor bedroom, bunk room, and den all have access to a private terrace, and wide views stretch out over Whistler’s dazzling Green Lake.

A-Class Views

A different approach was needed for Bromley Caldari’s A-Frame ReThink, a top-to-bottom renovation of a bayside home at Fire Island, New York, where the architects transformed a cramped, dark, and leaky 1960s beach rental into a sleek three-story hideout. A centrally located, six-foot (1.8 m) diameter spiral staircase was removed, opening up views over the Great South Bay, while a newly configured double-height living/dining room stretches the length of the window-clad north façade, and an open-plan kitchen runs along its south side.

One floor up, the primary suite includes full-height glass doors and, tucked high on the top level, are second and third bedrooms, plus a neat walk-through bath. “We added windows to the sides of the building,” explains Jerry Caldari. “It’s unusual for an A-frame but allows light and air to flow through the entire space.”

An A-frame cabin surrounded by snowy woodland
Lake Cottage by UUfie Architects in Ontario, Canada, has a deep cut to create a cantilevered overhang for a protected outdoor terrace, while 14 openings in the main living space reveal the sky.

Hidden Gem

Also using the A-frame concept to great practical and aesthetic advantage is the enchanting Lake Cottage by Toronto-based practice UUfie. Tucked deep in a forest of birch and spruce beside Ontario’s Kawartha Lakes, nature is an integral part of this contemporary build, which is an extension to an existing home.

A two-story, multiuse space designed for a large family, the 23-foot-high (7 m) A-frame features a black steel roof and charred cedar siding, as well as a mirror-clad terrace that marries it seamlessly with its woodland location. Inside, a bright living space is connected to the main house via a dining room, while a solid timber staircase leads to a loft where sunlight filters through onto walls lined in pale blue, fish-scale shingle.

A red A-frame home framed by blue skies
Every aspect of the zero-energy Casa 3000 in Comporta, Portugal, has been considered—from the cross-laminated-timber panels clad in red corrugated steel, to the steeply pitched roof that supports both solar panels and solar water heaters.

In complete contrast to Lake Cottage’s integrated approach, Portuguese practice Rebelo de Andrade’s Casa 3000 is a vibrant beacon on a uniform landscape. Resembling a life-sized Monopoly piece, it was designed by architect Luís Rebelo de Andrade to stand out among the seemingly endless rows of trees on the Herdade da Considerada, a 1,236-acre (500 ha) tract of land near Comporta, Portugal, and the house and neighboring farm building are a bold visual marker on an expansive terrain.

As the architect notes, “The exterior design of the house seems as childlike as the drawings children produce even before primary school. This apparent simplicity is actually based on the romantic imagery we all share: the house on the prairie, the life of the pioneers and settlers of the American Far West, so often depicted in Westerns and that live on in our constitutive memory.”

On the Market

An A-frame family home for sale in Austin, Texas
This contemporary A-frame farmhouse, designed by Hugh Jefferson Randolph Architects, was completed in late 2015.

On the market with Moreland Properties, this exceptional family home is situated in Austin’s highly desirable Tarrytown neighborhood. The two-story, four-bedroom property offers high-quality finishes throughout, as well as stained concrete and oak floors, and a pool alongside an outdoor kitchen that is perfect for entertaining.

Banner image: A-Frame ReThink by Bromley Caldari Architects in Fire Island, New York