Real Estate

September 1, 2012

Chicken coop gives
 homeowner backyard fix

As Chapel Hill residents Simon and Nancy Vincent began working on the yard of the house they bought five years ago, they discovered a problem in the rear corner of their back yard.

The Problem

Steeply sloped corner in back yard

As Chapel Hill residents Simon and Nancy Vincent began working on the yard of the house they bought five years ago, they discovered a problem in the rear corner of their back yard.

“We couldn’t figure out what we were going to do over here because the yard just kind of dives,” Simon Vincent said.

The Solution

A chicken coop

Being a builder for the last 30 years, Vincent viewed their sloped yard as a garden design problem. He and his wife thought they should add a structure to fill in the hole. The idea of something living was appealing.

“I thought, ‘Well, you know, why not do chickens?’ I didn’t realize that everybody else is doing chickens too,” Vincent said, laughing. “I thought it was a novel idea.”

The Challenge

Building an aesthetically pleasing coop that fits the proportions of the yard, allows for easy maintenance and serves the chickens well Vincent initially thought he would incorporate the bamboo fencing he already had used in other parts of the yard for the coop. But then he thought he’d better research what his clients, the chickens, would actually need.

“It became a building design project, trying to figure out how to build for a very particular client,” he said. “From that, it became a building science project because heat is a real problem in this climate for chickens. They really suffer from it.”

Vincent bought a book on raising chickens and spent a lot of time online, where he found a large amount of information at the website BackYard Chickens. As he designed the coop and run using computer-aided design software, he would look up information, such as how high and long the roost should be and where to place the nesting boxes. (He found that heavy birds shouldn’t be more than 2 feet off the floor as they can damage their feet jumping down, and nesting boxes should be lower than the roost or the chickens may end up roosting in the boxes.)

As he did his research, Vincent viewed many photos of chicken coops and was struck by how rudimentary and grim they looked.

“They weren’t really clean, and it just didn’t seem like that good of a place for the birds,” he said. “It was kind of at odds with all of this stuff that I was reading. For me, they’re pets and, in an odd way, they’re clients. I thought, well, I’ve got an opportunity to build something that functions well, that keeps maintenance low and is healthy for the birds.”

Materials and Cost

Total value of the coop, run and initial chicken supplies is an estimated $2,000.

About 60 percent of the coop and run was built with salvaged and leftover materials Vincent had on hand. Some materials were obtained from The ReUse Warehouse in Durham.

“Salvaging and recycling can do a lot,” Vincent said, “but there are always the things you need to fill in and the niceties like the new paint colors that you can’t get away from.”

Nancy Vincent noted, “It was a labor of love, but it’s the most charming chicken coop I’ve ever seen — and we’ve looked at a lot online.”

The coop — called The Oval Office “because every administration lays an egg,” her husband quipped — features a gabled house with a roof that extends over the chickens’ screened-in yard. Doors are on both gabled ends to allow easy access for cleaning, and the chickens move between the coop and yard through a window with a cabinet handle that makes opening and closing easy for the Vincents. Stone steps in the yard lead the chickens up to their window doorway, and a flagstone path across the yard provides the Vincents with a firm path when it’s muddy outside.

Inside the coop, a small, portable table covered in newspaper sits below the roost to catch droppings. A composting station is just an arm’s length away from the coop. The nesting boxes, closed off until the chickens are 20 weeks old, can be accessed from outside the coop. Exterior cabinetry above the nesting boxes provides a place to store heating lamps and other chicken essentials. A narrow, vertical cabinet to the right of the nesting boxes will house the plumbing for three chicken waterer nipples — valves that dispense a drop of water when pecked — which Vincent will install next to the boxes.

Some of the materials used include:

For Easy Maintenance in Coop — 4-foot-by-8-foot sheet of plywood for floor topped with scrap of black-and-white checked vinyl. Melamine-faced boards allow walls and ceiling to be wiped down.

n For Ventilation — Two gabled wall vents, with one above coop’s door and other above chickens’ window entrance. Four ventilation spaces (two on either side of door and window) made with 1/2-inch-by-1/2-inch hardware cloth (welded wire mesh) and covered with pet screen (vinyl-coated polyester mesh). Wooden shutters close those spaces at night. In winter, Vincent also will use 2-inch foam insulation boards behind the shutters as well as in one of the vents to prevent drafts. He likely will leave the window cracked as well as one vent open in the winter to keep the coop ventilated.

“Chickens don’t like drafts, but you have to ventilate the coop,” he said. “Because of the droppings, there is ammonia in the air.”

For Insulation — Above the melamine ceiling is 1 inch of air space and then radiant barrier insulation (2 inches of foam insulation with foil underneath) to keep heat from reaching the ceiling. Above the radiant barrier is another 1 inch of air space and then plywood roof decking. Cleats or furring strips (long, thin strips of wood) sit above the decking to keep the tin roof from touching the roof decking and passing heat through conduction. The air spaces are necessary for the radiant barriers to work.

“With their sensitivity to heat, I thought this was the place to make the real effort,” Vincent said.


If you’re thinking about building a chicken coop, Vincent advises the following:

“Make a real effort to keep the ceiling cool so that the little coop doesn’t cook like an oven,” he said.

Provide for ventilation. According to the information Vincent has read, at least 20 percent of a coop’s wall surface should be ventilation, such as windows or mesh openings.

“These are really classic building science issues,” he said. “You’re managing moisture; you’re managing ventilation and air quality; and you’re managing heat gain and loss. It’s just done very differently in a chicken coop.”

Think of your chickens as pets. As Vincent researched chickens and saw pictures of chicken coops, he noted he kept coming back to the notion that chickens get short shrift.

“We think, ‘Oh they’re just chickens,’ ” he said. “But what’s the difference between the chicken and the family dog?”

For the Vincents, an affectionate relationship has developed between them and their five chickens — two leghorns and three buff orpingtons with names based on their appearance and personalities: Red, Rose, White Bird, Sophie and Big Bird. Red especially is a pet to them, coming up to the run’s door and wanting to be held and petted.

Vincent, who added he never wants to feel chided by his chickens, said with a laugh, “I wanted to do something that reflected an upgraded status for the chickens.”

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