Architect meet your client: the chicken. You're about to become a coop buildin' Frank Gehry. Keeping chickens is mostly about figuring out their housing arrangement. The rest is easy—chickens are a lot less trouble than a dog. Now I wish I could offer a one-size-fits-all chicken coop plan, but living situations and climates vary. Instead, I'll offer what the gifted architect Christopher Alexander calls a "pattern language," a set of general guidelines you can use to get starting building your coop.
But back again to some fundamentals about your client the chicken. We're all used to dogs and cats. They are predators. Your more useful friend the chicken is, first and foremost, prey. A whole host of predators, common in both rural and urban areas, call chickens their personal KFC. Your chicken coop must be secure. I call mine "Chicken Guantanamo."
Here's my chicken coop pattern language. Put these elements together in a way that works for you, and you're ready to get some birds:
What You Need
Wood (scavenged preferably)
Galvanized Poultry Staples
Nails or screws
Corrugated metal roofing
1. Chickens need a place to roost at night. We'll call this the hen house. This should be dark, waterproof, predator proof, and have a round rod for roosting on. For the roost use a wooden pole two-inches in diameter for full size chickens--for banties a smaller 1-inch diameter perch. Give each chicken a foot of roosting space. My four ladies sleep in a hen house that is a 4-foot by 4-foot foot waterproof wooden box with a tin roof. I use high quality (dust free) wood shavings on the floor which I clean out every week, depositing the litter into a compost pile. The hen house also contains a nesting box that I built myself out of plywood. Check out some nice plans for nesting boxes here. Mine is 12"x12"x12". Chickens like a tight space to lay their eggs, so don't make it any bigger than that. Plan on having one box for every four hens. The nesting box should be kept full of straw or wood shavings. Ideally the nesting box is inside the hen house--hens like a dark, secure place to lay their eggs. In cold climates you will need to insulate the hen house well and keep their water from freezing.
2. An attached, secure run. I actually have two runs, but more on the second later. My secure run is for those days that I can't make it home in time to lock the birds up at sundown (when the worst predators, raccoons, skunks and owls start to come out), or get up early enough for their tastes. It is attached to the hen house, allowing them to come and go out of their house as they please and still be safe. This run measures 4' x 12', and the hen house sits within this space. This would be a little small for them to live in all the time, but generally they have access to the second run (see below).
The run does not have to be roofed, but some sort of sun or rain block is pleasant for the hens. The ideal run gets some sun during the morning and shade during hot afternoons. Chickens can overheat if the mercury rises above 100 degrees. The run should have a dirt floor--chickens like to take dust baths and scratch for bugs. To be secure from predators, the run should be constructed of hardware cloth, not chicken wire. Chicken wire should not be called chicken wire. It should be called "wire with gaps so big a raccoon can reach straight through and grab a hen." Extend that hardware cloth down into the ground at least a foot and a half since raccoons and dogs will dig. I actually ran the hardware cloth all the way across the bottom of the run, burying it about a foot under ground. If you plan to access the hen house through the run, give it a door sized for you, and make sure this door is sturdy and has a lock which will keep out raccoons. Never underestimate either their strength or their cleverness with latches.
3. A bigger space to roam and forage: aka "the second run." The more space your chickens have the happier they will be and the fewer problems you'll have. Their foraging space could be a yard, a bigger, less secure run--a chicken playpen, if you will--attached to the secure run, or a portable run called a chicken tractor. I have a expandable chicken run attached to my secure run that I made based on plans from Backyard Poultry Magazine that you can see here. I top my second run with aviary netting to keep the birds in and the hawks out.
Both of my runs are covered with a very thick layer of straw to catch droppings and give the hens something to search through. I can't emphasize enough that they're happiest when scratching. This is called the deep litter method. I throw kitchen scraps and weeds to the chickens in the run and collect all the compost they've made once a year. Pure garden magic.
A note on landscaping: chickens will decimate your beautiful vegetable garden in minutes. You have to keep them away from your crops. However, their appetite is useful when it's time to clear out the garden. They will happily till for you, "de-bugging" and working in their own manure in while they're at it. An alternative to the run is to put the chickens in a landscape that they'll benefit. For instance, if you keep them under a mini-orchard, the canopy of trees will protect them from hawks, they'll eat fallen fruit, get rid of any weeds, and fertilize the trees while they're at it.
Give your chickens a secure place to sleep at night, some protection from predators during the day and lots of dirt to scratch and dust in and they'll be happy and healthy. The eggs and/or meat you harvest will be from chickens that are much better cared for than the ones that supply our supermarkets.
So, Poultry architect, get to it! Pry off the titanium plates, put up some hardware cloth and, we'll have fresh eggs at the Guggenheim Museum Bilbao.
Note: I owe the chicken/architecture metaphor to my friend and fellow urban homesteader David Kahn of Edendale Farm.
- Erik Knutzen
About the author: Erik Knutzen and Kelly Coyne write Homegrown Evolution, a blog that explores a fast-growing new movement: urbanites becoming gardeners and farmers. Kelly and Erik are the authors of The Urban Homestead: Your Guide To Self-Sufficient Living in the Heart of the City. They have researched and experimented with small scale urban agriculture since moving to their tiny bungalow in Los Angeles ten years ago, and their practical, hands-on blog shares their successes, failures and includes step-by-step directions and links to resources that will get you started urban homesteading immediately, whether you live in an apartment or a house.
(Images: Erik Knutzen)