How To Build a Chicken Coop
Yes, you can build a chicken coop! In fact, chicken coops are the traditional starting point for people with no experience in rough carpentry.
“The best chicks come out of the sorriest houses.”
— Old-time poultry maxim.
Designing chicken coops isn’t rocket science, either. But there are some concepts to keep in mind.
The chickens themselves don’t care if their chicken coop has a nice paint job, or if its construction makes it easy or difficult for you to tend to their needs. They’d be just as happy roosting in a pine tree as in the best chicken house ever built. Thus, chicken houses are as much for our own benefit as the chickens’.
Why Have a Coop at All?
Fundamentally, our jobs as chicken-coop architects is to provide housing that’s at least as good as a tree:
If it were not for foxes, owls, large haws, and more particularly, modern chicken thieves with auto-trucks, I should yet be keeping a good sized flock of fowls in a pine grove, without house of any sort, roosting in the trees, protected only by the thick growth of white pines, a five foot wire fence, and provided with covered nests and feed hoppers. I tried this plan when we first moved on this farm, before the pine timber was cleared of dead branches and undergrowth. For several seasons this houseless poultry keeping worked well, even foxes and owls were not very troublesome, but with the great increase of auto traffic came clever thieves from town … These out-door birds had wonderful plumage with a fine sheen and were splendid layers.”
— Prince T. Woods MD, describing his Massachusetts experience in Fresh Air Poultry Houses, 1924, page 15.
Neither Dr. Woods nor I actually recommend that your chickens roost in trees. Ninety years ago, there were more chicken thieves than predators. Nowadays, there are more predators than chicken thieves, but the conclusion is the same: it’s best to keep a roof over your chickens’ heads. If you let your chickens roost in trees, or in the rafters of your garage, you’ll soon regret it, for one reason or another. But we have to choose a design that works at least as well as a pine tree!
The basic design concepts for chicken coops are quickly stated:
- The coop should be comfortable for the chickens.
- It should either be large enough for you to walk around inside, or small enough that you can reach any part of the interior from the outside.
- It should protect the chickens from predators.
- It should promote health and discourage disease.
- Feeding, watering, and egg collection should all be convenient.
This part is straightforward:
- Chickens want to lay eggs in a dark, secluded, place with some kind of nesting material (like straw or wood shavings).
- Chickens want to sleep up in the air, at the highest point available to them, such as on tree branches, on a porch railing, or the roosts you provide in the chicken house.
- Chickens need shade and a breeze in hot weather, and to get out of the wind in cold weather.
- Chickens have difficulty feeding in the dark.
It’s important that you be can either walk around inside the coop and reach every part of it from the inside, or make the coop small enough that you can reach every part of it from the outside. Many small coops are sized exactly wrong, requiring that you be a contortionist to do even simple tasks.
For small coops, being able to reach any point works out about as follows:
- The roof is hinged or can otherwise be moved out of the way.
- The walls are no more than two feet tall.
- The coop is no more than two or three feet wide.
Such a coop can be very simple, like the one below, used here in Oregon 100 years ago:
Such small coops never go out of style. Here is a recent one:
For larger coops, you can get away with walls that are only four feet high. You can walk around in such a coop, bent over. It’s awkward to handle feed sacks this way, though, so I recommend this only when feeding is handled some other way (such as outdoors, or with feeders that are filled from outside the house.
Otherwise, a chicken house should let a poultrykeeper stand tall and proud, with a roof line 6 ½ or 7 feet high. If the roof is steep, and you’re lugging feed sacks around, make sure you can fill the feeders without assuming an unnatural, back-straining posture.
Protection from Predators
Rats are the worst enemy of baby chicks. Brooder houses should either be rat-proof, you should have an effective rat-control program in place, or both.
Older chickens are not menaced by rats, but, given the opportunity, everything else, from weasels to bears will be happy to enjoy a chicken dinner. The coop itself is generally protected by a tight-fitting door and screened windows, and a perimeter fence is often a necessity. (See my electric fencing FAQ.)
Promoting Health and Discouraging Disease
Chickens are prone to some parasites and diseases that are magnified by close confinement unless steps are taken. The most common problems are probably roost mites and coccidiosis.
Roost mites don’t live on the chickens and can be controlled by any numbers of different kinds of sprays aimed at the roosts, nest boxes, and perhaps the rest of the coop. This spray can be anything from mineral oil (which blocks their breathing pores) to insecticides. Coops should be designed so the roosts and nest boxes are easily removed and sprayed.
Coccidiosis is an intestinal parasite that grows rapidly in wet manure and damp litter. Keeping the floor of the coop reasonably dry, keeping manure and litter out of the feeders and waterers, and using the deep litter method all help prevent outbreaks, and these have a bearing on coop design.
Dampness in chicken houses is an open invitation to parasite and disease outbreaks. While there are many ways of keeping the coop dry (from radiant floor heat to the use of slatted floors that let the droppings fall through onto an automatic conveyor belt that removes the manure from the house), the most effective method for small operations is the open-front or fresh-air poultry house, which builds in plenty of airflow to prevent condensation and to dry out the droppings and litter.
Fresh-air poultry houses have been standard for commercial operations for a century, but backyard and small-flock operations still use nineteenth-century closed houses as often as not, in spite of their inferior results, summer and winter. You still see brand-new chicken coops just like this one:
Convenience in Feeding, Watering, and Egg Collecting
Convenience is important, since your time is valuable. It’s easy to arrange a coop in a way that makes everything difficult, and only a little more difficult to arrange a coop that makes all the most common chores easy.
Build a Fresh-Air, Open-Front Coop
Since adult chickens are insulated by a heavy coat of feathers, trying to keep them warm is a waste of time. Yet I sometimes get emails from people in Florida asking me if they need to use heat lamps on their adult hens in the wintertime! No, you don’t. Not even in Canada.
We all learn to coddle day-old baby chicks: we keep them warm and protect them from floor drafts that might chill them. It’s not so easy to shift gears when the chickens get older, but we need to. Chickens have sensitive lungs and need good air quality to thrive. If we close our chicken houses too tightly, the houses will be dark, dank, and smelly, and the chickens will do poorly.
I use open-front houses, and these work great. They’re airy and stay dry, even in wet Oregon winters. I built a less-open house that didn’t have the same kind of airflow, and it stayed wet and nasty, even after I took the door off its hinges and threw it away. Plenty of airflow and open window space is the key, even in winter.
I feel so strongly about this (and have been so appalled by the dark, airless chicken coop plans that are still floating around), that I republished the classic guide to open-front chicken houses, Fresh-Air Poultry Houses by Dr. Prince T. Woods. This is an oldie but a goodie. Read the sample chapter: it will convince you.
What About Drafts?
People talk about “protecting chickens from drafts” because too much of our poultry dialog is stuck in the bad old days of the 19th century. Such dialog lacks important concepts, such as:
- Hypothermia. If a chicken’s body loses heat faster than its metabolism can replace it, it enters hypothermia, suffers, and eventually dies.
- Wind chill. Heat loss is faster with rapid air motion than in still air.
So the real guideline is to protect chickens from hypothermia. This is easy enough, since chickens have a high metabolism and a dense coat of feathers, which is why roosting in a pine grove during a New England winter is not much of a challenge for them.
In a damp environment, chickens are more susceptible to both hypothermia and frostbite. Without sufficient airflow, the moisture from the chicken’s breathing and droppings accumulates, sometimes even condensing on the ceiling and dripping onto the chickens. To remove this moisture you need adequate airflow.
And, of course, in the warmer months, those thick feathers become a liability to the chicken, making overheating and heatstroke a real possibility. We call it a “draft” when we disapprove of it, and a “cooling breeze” when we like it. Chickens, like us, benefit from cooling breezes in warm weather.
A Cheap Chicken Coop is a Good Chicken Coop
My focus is always on chicken coops that are inexpensive and easy to build. I don’t like spending more than $200 on a coop for 50 chickens. These coops are extremely plain, and are often several years old before I get around to painting them. This means that almost anybody’s chicken coop will be more attractive than mine.
People who feel they have an image to maintain will often spend ten to twenty times as much per hen as I do. “It’s a coop, but it costs like a sedan.” Which is okay if that’s what you want, provided you’re not planning on making a profit from your flock. I’m just letting you know that it’s not your only option.
Milo Hastings has something to say on this topic back in 1909. It’s just as true today (though inflation means that a 1909 dollar was worth twenty times as much as today’s dollar):
“I know of a poultry farm near New York City where the houses cost $12.00 per hen. The owner built this farm with a view of making money. People also buy stock in Nevada gold mines with a view of making money.
I know another poultry farm owned by a man named Tillinghast at Vernon, Connecticut, where the houses cost 30¢ per hen. Mr. Tillinghast gets more eggs per hen than the New York man. Incidentally, he is sending his son to Yale, and he has no other visible means of support except his chicken farm.
— Milo Hastings, The Dollar Hen, 1909, p. 66.
Older books on poultrykeeping assume that you’ll make your chicken houses out of cheap lumber, perhaps second-hand lumber. Since chicken houses almost always have smaller dimensions than regular houses, barns, or even sheds, there was an assumption that you could cut second-hand lumber down to size.
Newer books tend to assume you’ll use new materials, because they’re written for commercial farmers and the standard houses had gotten awfully big by then, and it’s hard to built a house for thousands of hens out of scrap materials!
My own hen houses are sometimes built with second-hand materials and sometimes with new. Second-hand materials are fine if they’re suitable to the task, but your time is valuable, and repurposing used or bargain materials sometimes isn’t worth the effort.
Most of my houses have 4×4 pressure-treated skids, 2×4 framing, plywood walls, and corrugated steel roofs. These represent about the cheapest materials available: you can easily go up from there.
Some of my coops are almost 20 years old (my, how time flies!), and I’m glad I used metal roofing. Most other technologies wouldn’t have lasted this long.
Simple Free-Range Housing Concept
Milo Hastings describes the ultimate in free-range simplicity in The Dollar Hen. The section quoted below had a tremendous influence on my own approach to free-range egg farming.
Hastings assumes that there’s a perimeter fence to keep predators out. This lets him dispense with such frippery as doors on the chicken coops:
For the region of light soils and the localities which I have recommended for poultry farming, the following style of poultry house should be used:
No floors, single-boarded walls, a roof of matched cypress lumber or of cheap pine covered with tarred paper. This house is to have no windows and no door. The roosts are in the back end; the front end is open or partly open; feed hoppers and nests are in the front end. The feed hoppers may be made in the walls, made loose to set in the house, or made to shed water and placed outside the house. All watering is to be done outside the houses; likewise, any feeding beyond that done in hoppers.
The exact style of the house I leave to the reader’s own plan. Were I recommending complex houses costing several dollars per hen, this certainly would be leaving the reader in the dark woods. With houses of the kind described it is hard to go far amiss. The simplest form is a double-pitched roof, the ridge-pole standing about seven feet high, and the walls about four. The house is made eight by sixteen, and one end—not the side—left open. For the house that man is to enter. This form cannot be improved upon.
The only other points are to construct it on a couple of 4×4 runners so that it can be dragged about by a team of horses. Cypress or other decay-proof wood should be used for these mud-sills. The framing should be light and as little of it used as is consistent with firmness. If the whole house costs more than twenty-five dollars [$500 in today’s money], there is something wrong in its planning. This house should accommodate seventy-five or eighty hens.
For smaller operations, especially for horseless, or intensive farming, a low, light house may be used, which the attendant never enters. A portion of the roof lifts up to fill feed-hoppers, gather eggs, or spray. These small houses may be made light enough to be moved short distances by a pry-pole, the team being required only when they are moved to a new field.
Modern designs have elaborated on Hasting’s lightweight house ideas by using lighter materials, allowing the houses to be moved easily by hand.
My wife Karen developed the idea of a hoop house using lightweight cattle panels bent into a semicircle. These are fully described on my hoop-coop page.
Straight From the Horse’s Mouth
You can see why I found so much inspiration in books from the Golden Age of American Poultry Science (roughly 1910-1960). I’ve republished my favorites under my Norton Creek Press label. You can buy them on Amazon.com and pretty much everywhere else, too. I’m sure you’ll value them as much as I do. The ones with the most insight on chicken coops are:
- Fresh-Air Poultry Houses by Prince T. Woods, MD (1924). A thorough and useful guide to poultry house concepts, if a little eccentric (but in a good way).
- The Dollar Hen by Milo M. Hastings (1909).
Simple, practical advice from Milo Hastings, who went on to write classics of early science fiction and to become America’s first health-food columnist.
- Poultry Breeding and Management by Professor James Dryden (1916). Dryden was the first person to successfully breed chickens for increased egg production. His book in many ways resembles The Dollar Hen: well-informed, relentlessly practical and useful, but more than twice as long and thus with far more detail.
- Poultry Production by Leslie E. Card (9th Edition). From the Sixties, this book is more up-to-date than the others, and bridges the gap between small-flock practices and factory farming, letting you mix and match techniques.
Chicken Coop Construction Articles On This Site
- Range Poultry Housing: Coops for Grass-Fed Chickens (With Videos!).
- Better than Chicken Tractors: Hoop Coops for Free-Range Chickens.