Five years ago, my husband and I designed and built our backyard chicken coop. The design was based on photos of a friend’s chicken coop and ideas we gleaned from other online coop designs. Both of us being mechanical engineers and hands-on do-it-yourselfers, designing our own chicken coop is a pretty straightforward task. If anything, we went way beyond what was needed by modeling it in CAD with very exacting dimensions and drawings. That first design incorporated all the necessities for keeping a small flock healthy and comfortable—coop area, run area, nesting boxes, perches, doors, accommodations for food and water.
However, we found ourselves continuously tweaking the design to incorporate new features aimed at making tending our flock a little bit easier. Recently, we were asked to design and build a chicken coop for our vegetable CSA farm. We looked at our original design and all the features we added over the last five years. We also considered how we ended up with our current design because not all of those new features worked out the first time. There was some (read: a lot) of trial and error. While the chicken coop at our CSA farm benefited from our years of continuous improvements, it occurred to me that it would have been nice to incorporate some of these improvements from the start or at least know why some coops are designed a certain way.
This is by no means an exhaustive summary of all chicken-coop design consideration, but, instead, some of the things we found important to our lifestyle. With busy schedules, running our own consultancies, going to night school, and keeping neighbors content about chickens in an urban setting, these features turned out to be essential for simplifying our chicken-keeping lives. For us, things like quick cleanability, easy access to coop and run areas for servicing, sealing for pests and predators, winterization, and automation were important to us. In case of that extended vacation, we also wanted it to be uncomplicated for our neighbors to take care of the chickens. To us, that meant daily egg collection with minimal servicing needs.
Before starting on your own chicken coop design project, decide what kind of coop fits your needs. I put coop styles into three categories—tractors, stationary, and free-range.
Well, the last is not so much of a coop design, but it is a choice on how to maintain your flock. It is possible to provide minimal protection for your chickens and allow them to free range in a backyard. They will destroy any unprotected gardening and are susceptible to predators like large birds, coyotes, and even neighborhood pets. Keep in mind, chickens fly, but do not take flight. They can easily jump and flap their way over a 4-6-foot barrier. In an urban setting with coyotes and large birds near a throughway with no yard fence, free-range was not an option for us.
A tractor coop is a chicken coop on wheels that is easily moved from place to place to provide chickens with a fresh patch of ground to feed and scratch in. These are great if you are looking for a way to use your chickens for aerating soil, but it is not for manicured lawns. It is tempting to build a tractor “just in case” you might want to move it, but parts that are supposed to move may no longer move after long, stationary periods out in the elements. Rubber wheels, lubricated bearings, and axles can degrade from exposure causing irreversible damage. So, only build a tractor if you plan to use it and maintain it.
Stationary coops are best if you are looking for a semi-permanent structure that might be moved periodically. They lack wheels and a foundation is not necessary for a backyard flock. An open bottom gives the birds access to the ground for scratching and pecking. Most are not permanent structures and they can be moved periodically as needed. We added four sturdy handles to allow four strong people to move the coop across the backyard with only a modest effort.
We have eight raised beds and getting a tractor onto those beds is just not practical, so we have a stationary coop. However, we do want our chickens to aerate our beds, eat vine-borer grubs, and leave some fertilizer. In addition to composting the bedding and soil, we pen our hens on each bed at the start of the season.
The needs of backyard hens are pretty basic. Industrial chickens operations take this notion to an extreme, but once chickens have access to food and water with some protection from the elements and predators, the rest of the coop design is about convenience for owners. Chickens will lay eggs anywhere. The nesting area is a space to encourage chickens to lay eggs so we can easily find them. We do not walk our chickens on a leash. The run is an area where they get fresh air, scratch and peck and hunt for worms off-leash. They do not sleep in our house; the coop keeps the chickens safe at night protected from predators and elements.
Our original coop design is pretty straightforward. The 8’ by 4’ footprint is framed by 2”x4”s. The cuts were selected to maximize lumber usage such as completely using a 12′ board with 8’ and 4’ cuts or two 6’ cuts. The center-peaked roof uses a single sheet of plywood as do the coop and nesting walls. The nesting box was built separately with an internal frame allowing it to be screwed onto the main coop. It is divided into three 12” x 12” x 12” spaces, which is more than ample for four hens. The run and the coop are accessed through simple hinged doors for cleaning and servicing. The nesting box is easily accessed through a hinged lid for egg collection and cleaning. The perches were made from 2”x2” fencing. We used galvanized dryer vents for coop ventilation.
We were advised that our neighborhood is frequented by coyotes, raccoons, and large predatory birds, so, we implemented several features for predator protection. To keep raccoons from reaching into the enclosure, the run was enclosed with ½” by ½” hardware cloth stapled every six inches. We gave our hens a safe, enclosed coop to sleep in and added a nested, sliding, garage door to close them in the coop at night. The garage door was manually operated with a rope and cleat requiring the coop to be closed at night and opened in the morning.
Our flock would often decide to sleep on the perches in the run. Whether this was because they could not see well enough to get into the coop or they just wanted to enjoy the fresh air, sleeping outside thwarted the multi-layered nighttime defenses from predators. So, one of the first features we added was a coop light. We simply plugged in the light at night and unplugged it when we closed the coop door.
However, given our chickens are not so interested in sleeping in, ever. We found getting up early to open the coop cut into our weekend. So, we decided to automate not only the coop door, but also the light. While we were at it, we also added a socket for a screw-in heater inside the coop. Automating the light was a simple matter of adding a mechanical timer switch. For the heater, we used a simple temperature controller. When the coop temperature drops below 40°F, the heater automatically kicks in to keep the coop warm. To automate the door, we opted to buy a commercial coop motor and timer.
Our most recent change swapped a heated waterer with an automatic waterer. The heated waterer proved to be a necessity for New England winters, but keep in mind, they need electricity. The automatic waterer simple device has a gravity activated valve and it screws into a water hose. When the waterer is full, the valve shuts off the water. As it falls low, the valve opens.
Now, the coop door opens at 6:00 AM and closes at 10:00 PM; the light turns on at sunset and off at 11:00 PM; the heat turns on at 40°F and there is a constant supply of fresh water. Of course, the automation did not get installed without a few hiccups.
On a few occasions, we found the glass infrared-heater shattered. It appears our chickens like to peck at it. We have since replaced that with a ceramic heater. We opted to build our own garage door out of wood. Wood does not slide against wood really well, so it took several adjustments and a few failure-to-opens to get it moving consistently. Wood also changes with weather and time, so there are additional tweaks with seasons. To avoid this tweaking, we will purchase a commercial door, slides, motor, and timer for our CSA farm. There are several all metal options available for this.
We only just installed the automatic waterer last month. It seems simple enough, but it did involve new valves and splitters at our water hose. We also learned there is a sweet-spot to the valve adjustment. An improperly adjusted valve causes the water to either continuously flow or never fill. I also expect winter to present some new challenges as well; freezing may send us back to the heated waterer.
Since we had not anticipated adding so much automation, the coop did not have a protected space for some of the equipment. We decided to turn one of our nesting boxes into a utility closet. The utility closet houses electrical outlets with a breaker switch and the mechanical and electrical timers. Even if you do not plan to automate your coop to this extent, you should consider how electricity may be accessed and the rules in your municipality. You might also consider options like solar panels which are also available with automated coop doors.
All that automation may sound like a lot of work, but ultimately, it simplified our lives tremendously. Not only did it allow us to get extra shut-eye, but it also made traveling easier to manage. Except for collecting eggs, the chickens no longer needed daily service.
The automation also made it easy for neighbors of all ages to take care of our chickens when we were away. As a matter of fact, it made neighbors happy to take care of our chickens when we were away. For some reason, the simple responsibility of opening the door and turning on the light made some neighbors a little nervous about caring for the chickens. What if they forget? What if they do something wrong? What if the chickens need something more? After automation, the task seemed less daunting. It was more of a daily egg treasure-hunt than a daily chicken chore.
Since kids at the CSA farm were going to be taking on the chicken chores, we realized we could make it easier to clean the coop. The indoor coop is off the ground to prevent nighttime predators from simply digging under the coop. Since the area under the coop is part of the run, the footprint is also used more efficiently. However, the best feature is the slid out floor allowing quick coop cleaning. Our original design was a framed piece of plywood that slides through the coop door (see photo). This worked great and was really simple, but cleaning was not as easy as it could be. The floor must be slide all the way out or tipped up to clean. The hidden nooks and crannies around the frame could also house pests and dirt that are hard to remove. For the new design, we opted for a piece of plywood cut to size with a grab handle. Without the frame around the edges, the floor only needs to be pulled out about a foot and the dirty coop materials are quickly swept into the run. Six-year olds are doing this.
For the nesting boxes, the stand alone internal frame design was easy to assembly, but it created a low wall between the coop and the nesting boxes. This is not a big deal, but it does trap some material in the nesting boxes during cleaning. The new coop was made with an external frame and a slanted floor. This eliminated the low wall and allows the nesting material to be easily swept into the coop for cleaning.
The final improvement we made for the cleanability of our coop was sealing the interior surfaces better. We found out the hard way how many little critters can build a home in every nook and cranny inside the coop. And during a cold winter, a warm coop is a very attractive place for a critter to squat. Last winter brought on a pretty nasty mite invasion in our coop and ultimately, on our chickens. After a deep cleaning in the coop to rid it of mites, we added generous coating polyurethane to all surfaces and caulked all corners with silicone. This generous coating of polyurethane and well sealed corners now allows us to periodically hose out the whole thing.
Now, cleaning the coop and feeding the chickens takes around 20-30 minutes a week. Additionally, since it is so easy to clean the coop, we do it more often and more thoroughly. This keeps infestations at bay and our chickens healthier. The cleanliness and lack of smell also keeps our neighborhood happier.
On somewhat of a whim, we built a chicken coop and bought a small flock of chickens five years ago. It has been a lot of fun and a great learning experience. As you can see, it is an ever-evolving process, but each new improvement makes keeping chickens a seamless part of our life except we get much tastier eggs for it!