Design magazines, online forums and social media are swirling with pictures of the Moop, the Eglu and the Coopsicle. If the 1980s required a BMW in the driveway and the 90s demanded a page on the newfangled ‘World Wide Web,’ today’s de facto ‘locavore’ status symbol is a chicken coop in the backyard.
“Chickens are the mascots of the local food movement. People want to celebrate that by making the coop an accessory to their house or yard. It’s something they’re proud of and place prominently,” says Matt Wolpe, co-author of ‘Reinventing the Chicken Coop’, and the brains behind the Coopsicle, a hen house erected on top of a four-foot redwood post.
Wolpe’s first coop experience was in 2007, when he was hired to teach a collaborative design/build class at a non-profit in Oakland, California. Together with the students, Wolpe designed a structure of painted plywood with a shed roof that could be assembled for about $200 and would suit small urban yards.
Though he was happy with the effort, Wolpe felt there was more to explore in this paradigm. In 2009, he started Just Fine Design/Build with friend Kevin McElroy. The two thought a chicken coop would be the perfect project to represent their new business at Maker Faire, a yearly event dedicated to the ‘do-it-yourself’ mindset.
The resulting ‘Chick-in-a-Box’ received the Editor’s Choice Award at the fair and was the focus of a healthy dose of press coverage. The two thought their days of coop construction were over until they were approached by Storey Publishing to create a book on the subject.
“At first we didn’t want to do it because chicken coops were not our lifelong work,” Wolpe says. But before long they had signed a contract and set to work on their designs. The book features 14 original designs and step-by-step instructions for each.
The appeal of the project, Wolpe says, was that each coop was like building a small house, with its own roofing, flooring and framing challenges. The two explored ways of incorporating fine detail and the type of craftsmanship usually reserved for furniture. The fact that chicken coops were connected to bigger ideas of food production and sustainability – ideas to which they personally ascribed – was an added bonus.
“The role of the chicken is expanding, and with it we see the nature of chicken shelter expanding too,” they write in their book, which was released in January 2013. “Chickens are no longer solely in the domain of the farm; now they are a fundamental component of DIY food production and food security in urban and suburban backyards. This makes coop design an ideal medium for experimentation.”
And experiment they did, with designs ranging from a simple A-frame to a ‘stoop coop’ that serves both as animal shelter and human gathering place. Another design is a playful take on a log cabin, the iconic symbol of pioneer living. The design is not for beginner handymen, however, as it features a sliding barn door, log cabin joinery, and an asymmetrical pitched roof.
Alison Froese and Jeff Stoddard took a less high-minded approach to housing their poultry in Musquodoboit Harbour, Nova Scotia. In fact, the couple didn’t even set out to have hens; it just sort of happened. “We had a vague idea that someday it would be nice,” Froese says with a laugh. “I was thinking maybe one or two chickens, but we ended up with 14.”
Froese and Stoddard bought the hens from a neighbour for $75 in an “all-or-nothing” deal, on the condition that the neighbour would keep the hens until they could prepare suitable accommodation on their own property.
They selected an unused greenhouse at the back of their property as their hens’ habitat. Froese and Stoddard reinforced the floor to make it predator-proof and lined the walls with old doors. “If chickens get bored, they will tear drywall to shreds,” Froese says, so the doors ensured the walls couldn’t be pulled apart.
Stoddard cleared the adjacent land of bushes and brush and leveled it to install an old chain-link dog run for the chickens to roam. Stoddard’s father donated some extra feeders from his own days of keeping chickens, and the couple scavenged other materials, including paving stones, gravel and old beverage crates, from around their property. The crates became cozy nesting boxes for the hens to lay their eggs.
“We are most proud of the fact that we used what we had, and that what we had worked so well,” Froese says.
Although the coop did require a substantial investment of time to make it operational, Froese is pleased they were able to do it at a minimal cost. “Spending money to build our own sustainability wouldn’t make sense to us.” If you can do it with recycled materials, Froese says, all the better.
Although we might never know the extent to which chickens are moved by their aesthetic surroundings, a few basic elements are essential to their survival. A stylish coop is of no use if it doesn’t work well for the chickens or if it isn’t convenient for humans to use or keep clean.
“There’s a set of design parameters you have to consider,” Wolpe says. “Beyond that it can be anything.” Those parameters include general space requirements for each chicken, configuration of the chicken run, roost placement, ventilation, protection from predators and rodents, and insulation.
Once those basics are covered, the rest is up to you. “You don’t have to baby them,” says Froese. “They don’t have to be your friends. They are chickens. They’re not going to care.”