Which makes a better home, a shipping container or an A-frame?

shipping container
© New York Times/ Curbed

Two articles look at the two technologies; each has its own strengths and weaknesses.

Two articles were published in New York City on September 22 that look at two different forms of housing. In the New York Times, Kenneth R. Rosen writes about Coming home to a shipping container, subtitled, “Eco-friendly and affordable, shipping containers are gaining popularity as an alternative to traditional houses.” In Curbed, Alexandra Lange writes about The A-frame effect: “Not just another house, but a way of life.”

It is interesting to look at these two house forms side by side. Shipping containers start with steel boxes that are relatively cheap to buy, and they have some benefits; one I just learned about is that, “instead of hanging pictures on the wall with nails, they use magnets.” The head of one company that sells containers said, “It’s a legitimately green option for the consumer,” and “Anything that’s seaworthy is construction-worthy.” Now I could argue about that last point, given the treatments in the floors and the stuff that’s in the paint, but let’s talk about green.

Shipping containers were designed for shipping stuff, and can be stacked nine high when full; there is a lot of steel in them. I once calculated that if you melted 2 forty-foot containers down you could turn them into 2,095 steel studs and enclose 14 times the floor area, while actually having a place to put insulation and a way to cover the insulation. There is a lot of stuff in them.

how to build Chuck Randl a-frame/via

A-frames, on the other hand, are all about minimizing one’s footprint, about using as little material as possible. They are incredibly efficient, easy to build. Roofing is the cheapest material in a house and they are mostly roofing. You don’t need a crane and you don’t need to be a welder.

Reese House© Alastair Gordon

Unlike shipping containers, where designers have to struggle to make small spaces habitable and comfortable, A-frames have the opposite problem; because triangles are not efficient enclosures of space, they tend to get tall and dramatic inside. They are wonderful spaces, but tey are not without their problems. As Alexandra Lange writes,

In an A-frame, there are few closets, so it must remain eternally Kondo-ed. In an A-frame, there’s little privacy, so the family has to gather around the fireplace or run around outside. Indoor-outdoor living and informal entertaining were the style of the day in the 1950s, as they are now, and you cannot be any other way in an A-frame. Leisure is part of their very character.

Comparing the photos in the two articles, I cannot help feeling that the shipping container houses are clunky and heavy, as people try and adapt their lives to fit into little steel boxes.

interior reese house© Alastair Gordon

The A-frames require a different kind of adaptation, as they are mainly open spaces, a different kind of living. As Lange notes,

Owners try to get right-angled rooms under the roof through dormers and shed roofs, doubled-As and dugout basements, but the truth is, it is an awkward form. Staying low, and furnishing minimally, is the best way to take advantage of an abundance of floor and a pittance of wall.


It’s tough; neither form is really designed for people; the container is designed for freight and the A-frame for structural efficiency and economy. One Twitter friend has already given me her opinion. Which would you rather have?


UPDATE: Reader solves problem, once and for all:


Tags: Green Building | Shipping Containers

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