There are hundreds of chicken-housing designs available today, so choosing a new chicken coop model to build or buy can be a challenging task. However, by carefully considering each of the design elements that go into great housing, it’s possible to select a chicken coop model that’s perfect for you and your chickens.
The important housing elements to evaluate (which we’ll discuss below) include the following:
- predator protection
- human access
- egg boxes
- roosting bars
In addition to the coop design itself, chicken-keeping factors such as location and access to electricity and water should be considered.
The best coop size for your chickens depends on how many birds you intend to keep, what breeds you’ll be housing and whether they have outside access.
It’s generally recommended that each bird have 2 to 4 square feet of space inside the coop if there is access to an outside run. Bantam breeds need at least 2 square feet of space. Heavy breeds need at least 4.
Chickens between those sizes need at least 3. If there isn’t outside access, then the size requirements increase to 5 to 10 square feet of space per bird (with 5 applying to smaller breeds and 10 to larger breeds accordingly).
Although the minimum sizes identified are normally adequate, when choosing a chicken coop model it’s a good idea to plan for a more space if possible.
“I always make the coop bigger than I think is needed because there are always more chickens than I think there will be,” says Mindy Wood, author of Raising Chickens Naturally. Also, having a larger coop means less frequent cleaning and fewer issues with things such as ventilation and moisture removal.
Location Is Important
A coop located near the house is preferable—especially if you’re going to be collecting eggs daily.
However, check local ordinances because some require a minimum distance between animal housing and habitable structures.
It’s also convenient to have water and electricity available at your chicken coop model. Chickens drink lots of water and lugging it a long distance gets old fast. Electricity is a nice option since it can power things such as heated waterers, an automatic door-opener and winter “lights-on” for better egg production.
It’s best to locate chicken housing where there is room for an outside run. “For the run size, I like to give at least 10 square feet per chicken, but more is always better,” Wood says.
Also, it’s a good idea to make the coop a separate structure. I made the mistake of keeping chickens in a barn stall, and they made the entire barn incredibly dusty (plus put their droppings everywhere).
I quickly learned that it’s better to house chickens separately.
The location should also take advantage of available light, breezes and shade to help stabilize temperatures. Consider the sun and how much you want or don’t want the sun to heat your coop.
In hot weather regions, this typically means placing the chicken housing in a shaded location. Facing the coop south with protection from northerly winds is often ideal in cold weather areas.
Finally, it’s a good idea to locate the structure downwind from any prevailing winds that pass by the house to minimize any odors.
Human Access & Storage
In order to clean, water, feed and care for your chickens, it’s generally necessary to get inside the coop.
Having easy access and room to work are essential. That means that a human-sized door and room to stand up inside the chicken house are important features to include. For smaller coops, it’s a good idea to incorporate a hinged roof that can be lifted to allow access to the interior for cleaning and chicken care.
Many chicken coop plans do not include room for storage. However, having a separate storage area within the structure can be a smart design addition. This is especially true if you don’t have other barns or outbuildings.
Supplies such as pine chip bales, chicken feed bags, oyster shell, grit, cleaning supplies and medicinal items are all things that need to be stored somewhere. Having a storage area for them within the coop makes chicken-keeping convenient.
Chicken housing needs to be well ventilated year-round to remove the large amounts of moisture, ammonia, dust and heat that chickens generate. Good ventilation also supplies chickens with the oxygen-rich air that they need to stay healthy.
The amount and location of vents needed changes as weather conditions change, so it’s important to have many ventilation options that can be closed or opened as required.
It’s also necessary to have more vents when the coop is crowded with more birds. Consider your coop ventilation requirements carefully.
Plan for more, not less. Poor ventilation can cause overheating, frostbite, blindness, respiratory problems and even death.
In areas where hot weather is not a problem, 1 square foot of vent opening per 10 square feet of floor space is generally advised. In hot weather areas, it’s often recommended that entire sides of the coop be constructed so that they can be removed to maintain sufficient ventilation.
Wood advises, “When I lived in the Northeast, open-air chicken coops were not a possibility. Now that I live in the South, they are. Always consider your climate when planning coop ventilation.”
Any ventilation openings that will be used during cold weather should be high up (above roosts) and protected from rain and snow by roof overhangs. You don’t want a cold draft wafting across the chickens’ roosts at night. Warmer weather vents can be lower in the coop so they provide a cooling breeze.
There are many predators that consider chickens an excellent meal and will do anything to get to them. Therefore, a coop design that protects against predators is an absolute must.
It’s amazing how small a hole a weasel can fit through or how strong and dexterous raccoons are. If these common predators get inside a chicken coop, they can quickly decimate a flock.
So, there should be no coop openings that anything can get through at night. All windows or vents should be covered with ½-inch hardware cloth (even when open). The small pop-hatch door that the chickens use to enter and exit the coop should also close securely at night.
Additionally, consider an elevated design so you can eliminate unwanted entries from below. An elevated coop will keep predators from digging and burrowing into the structure and provide your chickens’ shelter from the sun in summer and snow in the winter.
The common choices in flooring material are dirt, concrete or wood.
Dirt floors are very cost effective but hard to clean. Also, they make it difficult to keep predators or rodents out.
Conversely, concrete floors are the easiest to clean and prevent unwanted access. But they are also the most expensive option.
Wooden floors are inexpensive and a good approach if the coop is elevated at least a foot to prevent rot and keep rodents or predators out. However, wooden floors are often difficult to clean because droppings get packed between the boards.
Covering wooden floors with linoleum or coating the wood with a protective finish (see “Floor Coating,” below) are two options commonly used to make wood flooring cleanup easier.
At night, chickens instinctively like to roost on something off the ground for predator protection.
They prefer to roost on something flat. Wide roosts are beneficial in winter. They allow chickens to keep their feet tucked under their feathers all night to stay warm.
Two-by-fours placed so that the 4-inch width is what their feet sit on are ideal. The boards are wide enough that the chickens’ toes don’t hang over the edges. Plastic or metal piping is not suitable for roosts because it’s too slippery for the chickens to grip.
There should be at least 8 inches of roosting space in the coop for each standard size bird. (You need at least 10 inches for heavy breeds.)
Waterers, feeders and nest boxes shouldn’t be located below roosts because chickens do most of their dropping at night while sleeping.
However, the roosts should be placed higher in the coop than the nest boxes so the chickens are not tempted to sleep in them. This usually results in dirty eggs.
Roosts can be located at heights from about a foot off the coop floor to a couple of feet from the ceiling. But they should be staggered in height so that the chickens can easily hop from lower to higher roosts.
Another consideration is how easy the chicken coop model will be to clean. It’s also important to have some accommodation for cleaning under the roosting area.
The majority of droppings accumulate there, particularly if the chickens have access to pasture. Removable trays or dropping boards (made of sturdy wire that allow the dropping to fall to the ground) are two features sometimes incorporated to make cleaning easier.
Many chicken-keepers use the deep-litter method and allow the bedding to build up over several months’ time. They then clean the entire coop out at regular intervals.
If you’re planning to use this approach, it’s important to have equipment access to conveniently remove and replace all the litter.
Chickens prefer to lay their eggs in a dark, protected location. So appropriately sized nesting boxes need to be included in chicken housing designed for laying birds.
Nesting boxes 12-inch square for standard-size birds or 14-inch square for heavy breeds are generally recommended. Unlike coops and runs, they shouldn’t be made too spacious or multiple birds will try to crowd into the same box and cause broken eggs.
One nesting box for every four hens in the coop is usually sufficient.
A front lip about 2 inches high on the nesting boxes will hold in bedding material. A sloped roof will prevent the birds from roosting on them.
Some coop designs incorporate nesting boxes that can be accessed from outside the coop by lifting a hinged lid. These designs make collecting eggs and keeping the nest boxes clean quite convenient.
There are many aspects to consider when building or buying a chicken coop model. And it’s extremely important to consider the options outlined above.
By carefully evaluating your chicken-keeping plans and goals against those options, it’s possible to select a coop design that will make you happy and keep your birds healthy for many years.
Sidebar: Floor Coating
If you’re planning a new, wooden-construction coop, consider painting the interior wooden surfaces before adding chickens. The paint will protect the wood, help prevent parasite infestations and make the coop easier to clean.
When we got our first wooden coop, we investigated several products and concluded that spar urethane was both safe and able to protect the wood. So, we coated the entire inside of the new coop with several coats of a “clear gloss” version of the product, let it dry thoroughly and added the chickens.
That was over 10 years ago, and the coop doesn’t look new inside anymore. But the chickens thrived, the coop still has a nice protective coating of urethane on its surfaces, we’ve never had an issue with parasite infestations and it’s still easy to clean.
This article originally appeared in the January/February issue of Chickens magazine.