One of the trends I see on Facebook chicken groups is folks who put the cart before the horse, or should I say, the chickens before the coop. It often starts with a desire to get birds, a visit to a feed store and next thing you know a new chicken owner is born.
I spent years as a kid, and even into adulthood, going to fall fairs and enjoying the livestock. Until I moved to Gabriola Island I lived in cities and couldn’t have them. The summer after I moved to my house on acreage I decided to get chickens. Friends, who’d had chickens, offered to help out. They came with a pick-up truck loaded with tools, a trailer and a wall-full of nest boxes they made at home. We spent the weekend converting an old playhouse into my first coop.
Since then, I’ve had four main coops and two manufactured coops. I’m not sure if I have the plans for a perfect coop, but I have some ideas about what has worked, or not, for me. No matter if you design and build it yourself, there are usually some tweaks you’d like to make once you’ve broken it in. I’ve lived through 15 years of house renovations and there are some do-overs I’d like to, or have made.
Just like with home renos start thinking about what you want and what you can afford. Visit people with coops and ask their advice. Check out online sites. Keep a file of photos and notes. You’ll end up with a mash-up of some of the best ideas and hopefully you’ll be able to integrate as many of them as possible.
The design and size of your coop is not only dependent on how many birds you have, but will they be penned, free-range or a combination of the two. The more outdoor space they have the less indoor space you can get away with.
I sat with graph paper and drew out various dimensions and where I wanted to situate a door, windows, nest boxes, roost bars and pop doors. Making a visual representation that you can change with the ease of an eraser will really help you figure out the best use of space.
Then I went outside with some tent pegs and string and played with various locations. It’s easy to move the pegs around and you can stand inside the frame and see where the various elements will be situated and how things might flow.
Here are some tips on planning your coop:
Depending on the style of your coop it might be easy, or impossible, to move. Is it going to be permanent structure or a mobile tractor? This post mostly pertains to stationary coops, I’ll deal with chicken tractors another time. When situating your set up consider:
- Noise (both hens and roosters)
- Proximity to neighbours
- Ease of access during inclement weather (nighttime, rain, snow)
- Within earshot of predator attacks
- Topography (sloped for rain run-off to prevent muddy runs)
- Near trees for shade, or open to sun for passive solar heating
- Beside a wind break (i.e. pre-existing building like a shed)
- My dog has ¼ acre fenced area at the side and back of the house and doesn’t run free on the property. My chickens are across the driveway from the house so I never have to worry about her harassing my birds. Keep dogs in mind when getting chickens.
- Room to expand in the future
- Two of my coops were conversions (playhouse, rabbit hutch), one was purchased used and only my main one was built from scratch. Obviously only the latter had the flexibility of size. Where I live a building permit is required for anything over 104 square feet. Guess what? Not wanting to get a permit I built to the maximum size allowable.
- My main coop is a walk-in with a full foundation. My converted hutch in another pen is raised on legs to maximize their space and give them a dry area for dust bathing. Another bonus is it is a waist height for easy cleaning.
- I encourage you to build as big as possible even if you think you only want four birds. Regardless of whether that stays true it always helps to have space for supplies, an infirmary, area for broody hens or chicks.
- If your birds have a small pen: 4 square feet of coop floor space. If large pen or free-ranging: 2 square feet.
Fenced Run vs. Free-Range
- Will your birds be penned? Full-time or occasionally? There are pros and cons to free-ranging. I loved to see my original flock puttering around in the woods or following me in the garden. The downside was I lost a lot of eggs that were laid outside the coop; they were vulnerable to predators and they liked to poop on my porch and back doorstep.
- I currently have a flock of @19 hens and one rooster. Their side of the coop is 55 square feet and the pen is 1200 square feet. I have six teenaged pullets in an adjoining 450 square feet pen with a one half of a 8’x4’ coop.
- Any vegetation will need fencing to keep your chickens from eating or digging it up. My pen contains several dwarf fruit trees that provide shade and are ringed to protect them from my birds.
- I have one 3’x6’ open compost bin. The flock digs through it and I remove the finished compost once a year.
- I have had fenced raised beds in their area where I grew raspberries, squash and potatoes. Once harvested I let them have access to the beds.
- You can purchase a feed store manufactured coop, build one yourself, hire someone to construct one for you or buy one second-hand.
- Pre-fab coops are easy, but not very big or durable. I only use them to house broody hens or those in quarantine. Don’t expect them to last long.
- Be realistic about your budget. You can scrounge free salvaged materials that can save you money. Start stockpiling materials: what you end up with may influence your design.
- Try to find a ready-made, quality second-hand coop or a structure that you can convert into a coop.
- I am an avid freecycler and sourced insulation, doors, windows and dimensional lumber for my main coop to cut costs.
- My back coop was built with salvaged materials for a total budget of $40.
- My first and main coops have concrete foundations. If you can afford it they’re worth it: easy to clean, deters mites and lice and are predator proof. My other coop has plywood floors covered by free off-cut linoleum.
- Understand what are the most likely predators in your area and build accordingly (i.e. wired windows, solid foundation, automatic doors).
- Remember that dogs are one of the most common predators so make sure your birds are protected.
- My pens are netted overhead to prevent aerial predators (i.e. hawks). I’ve used light weight, durable plastic deer netting (2”x2” mesh) and strung it from side to side and over car canopy frames. The lengths of fencing are all zap strapped together.
- To read more about predator proofing click here.
- You can install bars at the same level or ladder style. Chickens have a pecking order and my preference is to not accentuate a hierarchy by having staggered roost bars. If you have a mixed flock of bantams and standards, or chickens with disabilities you might have to accommodate them with lower bars.
- Maximum height from the ground: 4’. Higher than that can contribute to injuries or bumblefoot from hard landings. It also makes it easier to catch birds or to administer medications.
- Roosts must be higher than the nest boxes as chickens like to roost as high as they can.
- There are different schools of thought about round vs. flat bars and what size. If you live in an area with real winters, then make your roost bars with 2”x4″s with the wide side up so your birds can cover their feet to protect them from frost bite.
- Each chicken needs 8”-12” of roost bar space. If birds are overcrowded it can be stressful, which leads to pecking and bullying.
- My roost bars were made from salvaged materials and are 2”x2”, which seem to work fine. I’ve also used dowels, tree branches and wider, wooden bars.
- No matter how many you build they will probably only use a few at a time. I have eight boxes for @20-25 hens. Some days one box is more popular, and another day no one uses it. Chickens are flock animals: it’s an evolutionary adaptation for them to lay in the same box to increase the potential that another hen with brood and raise their chicks when they are not broody.
- Recommendation: four hens/box.
- Your nest boxes can be accessed from the outside or inside. Obviously, if it’s the latter you will need to be able to walk inside. I have both styles. Remember if you have external boxes you’ll be standing outside in the rain or snow. My back coop has two external sets of three nest boxes and is fully covered by a ? tarp over a 10’x20’ canopy. I can go out in any kind of weather and be protected.
- Ensure your boxes are either at floor level or not more than 18” above the floor. I prefer raised boxes to maximize my floor space.
- You can buy manufactured nest boxes, but they are also an easy DIY project using wooden or plastic crates, buckets and plastic totes. Each box should be at least @12”x12”.
Windows & Ventilation
- Chickens require light, preferably natural daylight.
- Install several predator proof windows for cross-ventilation.
- If you have cold weather ensure you don’t have drafts at the same level as the roost bars.
- Birds generate a lot of heat and if your coop is not properly ventilated you may have issues with condensation and mold. Install predator wired ventilation at the roof line.
- If you live in a hot climate plan your windows to maximize air flow and think about installing a fan.
- My main coop has windows on three sides, but none on the side facing my house to minimize noise and smell.
- My 13’x8’ coop is divided in half: sleeping quarters on one side and supplies, infirmary and area for broody hens on the other. Each side has a pop door: the flock has access to a 1200 square foot pen, while the other side leads out to a 4’x9’ pen, ideal for a hen with chicks.
- I have a solar sensor automatic door which I would highly recommend. In the winter, my birds get up after I’ve left for work and are in bed when I get home. My auto door ensures they are safe, but I still go out nightly to check that everyone made it back into the coop.
Feeders & Waterers
- I have water containers outside the coop (to avoid shavings contamination and moisture in the coop) and feed inside (to deter rodents). There are a number of styles of feeders and waterers that you can purchase (often used) or DIY.
- I recommend having a peaked or sloped roof. The teenagers like to roost on the flat roof on their coop and it’s an annoying nightly ritual to get them down and safely back inside.
- Having electricity in your coop is a bonus. I have an outdoor extension cord buried in conduit that services two indoor lights, an outdoor light and a plug (handy for using a shop-vac). I don’t use artificial lights to encourage my birds to lay, but I appreciate having lights in the coop.
- I don’t recommend the use of heat lamps in coops due to the risk of fire.
- I have a hose bib @15’ from the coop which is great for my twice a year deep coop cleaning and watering the fruit trees in their pen.
- I have a metal roof and gutters on my storage shed in my chicken pen that collect rainwater in two 50 gallon cisterns with taps. I use it to clean and fill the waterers. The rainwater dries up in summer and I have to fill them twice over that season with a hose.
- You will need to provide a year-round, covered dry area for dust bathing.
- Some people paint the coop interior with marine paint or white wash it to deter external parasites, like mites and lice. If you do use paint make sure to have that completed well before your birds move in as they have sensitive respiratory systems.
- Chickens need shade and protection from the sun. I picked up two 10’x20’ car shelters that I have tarped to protect them from rain and sun.
- Having an attractive coop is important, but a bigger consideration is practicality: think about ease of cleaning, wheelbarrow access and opening doors or pop doors for shoveling bedding outside. The easier it is to clean, the more likely you’ll do so on a regular basis.
- Think about installing a droppings board or collection bins that are accessible from the outside to save time and energy. Here are two different styles of dropping collection systems that can be accessed from the outside. The first one has a droppings box under the roost bars which opens to the outside, and the second has a tray that can be pulled out the entire width of the coop and is at wheelbarrow height.
These are just a few ideas for you to consider and come up with what works for you. You’ll probably make some tweaks along the way to suit your own needs, but they are good starting points.
Featured Photo: Rena & Darren‘s Coop
I have written 35 profiles on different chicken keepers in a series called “Having Chickens Is A Great Way To Meet Your Neighbours”, all of which have photos of their coops. You can find them in the archive by typing ‘neighbour’ or ‘coop’ into the search box.