If human scale is as essential to good design as architects say it is, the classic 1960s A-frame got it just right. You can confirm this by putting a ladder against an interior gable-end wall and climbing until your head is nestled snugly in the peak, as if you were wearing the structure like a dunce cap. Notice that your shoulders just fit the wider space below. It's the perfect union of architectural theory, Pythagorean geometry, and musculoskeletal anatomy.

That was the good news about A-frames. The bad news was pretty much everything else. When it came to qualities like use of floor space, ease of heating and cooling, and availability of natural light, the best that could be said was that they were no worse than some geodesic domes. The images on this page — from architectural historian Chad...

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