Maybe you, like many people, are thinking about ways to be more self-sufficient this year. Maybe you have your vegetable garden planned and maybe you’re already on top of reusing and repurposing things around the house instead of buying things new. Maybe it’s time for some next-level stuff. Maybe, it’s time for some chickens. Which means you need a chicken coop.
Things to Consider When Building a Chicken Coop
Can you even have chickens? Many urban places have become friendlier to backyard poultry, but not every place is, so step one will be checking the bylaws.
Your local bylaws might have minimum and maximum specs for how big a chicken coop can be. They might also have regulations on how far it needs to be from property lines and from human dwellings, yours included. Depending on the size of the coop you have planned, you might need a building permit.
Inside the coop, chickens need about 3-5 square feet of ground space per chicken. They also need 8 inches of roosting space and room to actually spread their wings so they can fly up to it. The roosting bar should be 18-24 inches off the ground and wide enough for them to sleep with their feet flat.
Finally, you’ll need 12-14-inch nesting boxes. These are usually built into the wall and lower than the roosts, but do not put them directly underneath the roosts or your chickens will make an unholy mess of them. One nesting box is good for 3-4 chickens.
Chickens also need a secure outdoor run. Even if you’re planning on letting them loose in your yard during the day, a secure outdoor run is a must for those occasions when it’s impractical or unsafe for them to be in the yard. For each chicken, plan on 10 square feet of run space. Ideal space considerations depend on a lot of factors, but these guidelines are a good start.
The best location for your coop is going to depend heavily on things like local climate, local topography and the general logistics of your yard. The best coop location for your flock is a sheltered one that will let them stay cool during the heat of the day, warm and dry when the weather gets cold and safe from all the creatures that want to eat them. The best coop location for you is the one that will let you easily get feed and water to your chickens regardless of how sleepy you might be.
Chickens need roosts, nesting boxes, feeders and waterers and you’ll want them to be able to comfortably access these things. Otherwise, your flock will make a terrible mess of all of them and you’ll have to clean it up. They will absolutely refuse to help you. Plan your interior such that your chickens will be out of any drafts and able to enjoy natural light.
Flooring is another consideration. If your coop is on the ground, you’ll need to reinforce the perimeter so that no predators can dig their way in. An elevated coop makes this harder for predators, as well as giving your hens an extra shady space to hang out in during the summer. For flooring material, wood is the most common, but you might consider vinyl flooring – it’s easier to clean and helps protect against poultry mites.
As with any building, proper air flow is essential to the health of the occupants. Chicken coops tend to be humid and even the best-cleaned coops will be subject to ammonia, so it’s extra important for your hens’ respiratory systems that your coop be designed with adequate ventilation. One square foot of ventilation per ten square feet of floor space is a good minimum guide. If you experience hot summers, more is better.
Windows, louvered vents and/or roof vents are the most straightforward, but you can include exhaust fans or other mechanical ventilation in your plans if you want to get fancy. Keep fixed vents higher than the roosts so your chickens aren’t exposed to drafts in winter.
Your coop and your run will need to be escape-proof. Remember, you’re not just trying to keep your chickens in – you’re trying to keep chicken-eating creatures out, and there are a lot of chicken-eating creatures. Foxes eat chickens, dogs eat chickens, hawks eat chickens, owls eat chickens, even raccoons eat chickens. Your set-up will need to be impenetrable to those animals, especially the wily raccoon, whose burglary skills include turning doorknobs and sliding deadbolts.
Ease of Access
The last, but not least, thing to consider is how you’re going to access the coop. You will regularly need to clean it out, get eggs and check on your flock. If your plans include making it easy for you to maintain the coop, future you will thank you.
Chicken Coop Choices
There are many companies from which you can buy pre-built coops. Pre-built coops are the easiest option and give you a much better idea of what the actual end-product will be. These benefits might well justify the higher cost if you’re not handy or don’t have the time to build one yourself (i.e., you went to “look” at chicks and now you have ten of them and fewer than 6 weeks before they need to move into their adult digs). In the spirit of self-sufficiency, though, let’s look at your DIY options.
Build It from Scratch
This is the most customizable option. You’ll be able to assess your needs and the needs of your flock and select a plan based on the budget, materials and design you want to work with. Modern Farmer offers step-by-step instructions for a customizable coop and run. The Happy Chicken Coop has an amazing collection of ideas and plans with pictures and info that give you a sense of how much each coop will cost to build and how hard it will be to make. Even with minimal handiness, you’ll probably find something that seems manageable.
Convert an Existing Structure
This option has the virtue of needing fewer construction skills and fewer new materials. This can also be a less expensive option if you happen to already have a suitable structure to convert. Simply Living Country Gal walks you through the process of converting a garden shed into a chicken coop. Instructables has a basic DIY tutorial on how to convert an old playhouse into a coop.
The Thrifty Couple has an interesting round-up of the very interesting things people have converted into chicken coops, including everything from water tanks to dressers to an old car. To turn an existing item into a nesting box, try this milkcrate solution from BackYardChickens.com.
The big consideration with existing structures is that since they’re not purpose-built to house chickens, your renovations might need to be extensive to make the coop safe. Your kids don’t care if their playhouse is drafty but your chickens sure will when they’re living in it.
Keep chicken well-being and safety at the front of your planning and your extra care will pay off with a happy, healthy flock of feathered friends.