Getting Started: Chicken Coop Considerations

Don't put off deciding on (and installing) your choice of chicken coop, which should follow some basic rules to keep you and your hens happy and healthy.

by Ana Hotaling
PHOTO: Lesa Wilke

One of the most common situations new flock owners find themselves in—and one of the most preventable — is bringing their new chicken flock home without having yet set up their coop. This oversight is easily understandable.

Once you’ve set your heart on having those little fluffs home with you, it’s inordinately difficult to resist ordering them immediately. (Same goes for bringing them home after a visit to the farm-supply store.)

This doesn’t become an immediate issue—baby chicks live in a brooder for the first few months of their lives. But time slips away swiftly. You don’t want to be caught with a half dozen or more half-grown hens crowded into a plastic tote in your office, mud room, or garage because you don’t have their coop ready.

If you’ve already placed your hatchery order—or if your peeps are currently contentedly sleeping in a chick heap in the next room—don’t fret.

These five factors will help you determine which coop you’ll be constructing.

Chicken Coop Size

You’ve researched your local ordinances. So you are already aware of where on your property you can place your coop and how large it can be.

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You’ll want to provide each of your birds with a minimum of 4 square feet of indoor space. This way, they’ll have room on those days that the weather makes even us want to stay inside.

Compare the total square footage you’ll need for your flock with what your ordinance allows. You may be well within the local limits. But if your required space exceeds the stated maximum, you’ll need to cut back your flock.

In addition to your coop’s overall square footage, you will also need at least one 13-square-inch nest box per four hens. I recommend one nest box per two hens to give your girls a choice and prevent hen pile-ups and smashed eggs. 

Read more: Doors and gates are key to enjoyable chicken-keeping.

Chicken Coop Doors

The Pop Door

Regardless of size and design, every coop features three types of functional doors that provide complete access.

First and foremost is the pop door, the small rectangular opening used by your birds. Pop doors typically swing outward on hinges. They latch open and shut with hooks or carabiners to allow your chickens to come and go as they please.

A different style of pop door snaps into a track. The door panel then slides up and down by pulling on a chain or string, which winds or clips into place to keep the entrance open.

This latter type of pop door can be automated with an electronic device that operates according to your settings (most feature built-in light detectors that allow your door to open at sunrise and close at sunset). 

As with anything, there are pros and cons with each style. A hinged pop door is typically sturdier and provides better defense against predator infiltration. Its heaviness, however, can knock a chicken into next Wednesday if it slips out of your hand while your birds are exiting out the opening.

Because a sliding pop door must be light and thin to operate smoothly within its track, cunning predators can figure out how to slip their claws beneath the door and lift it open. They can also use their body mass to bash the slender door inwards, climbing through the gaps to get inside.

My husband Jae nicknamed the sliding style of pop door “the guillotine” for obvious reasons. Fortunately, we never lost a hen to an accidental release of a sliding door. 

The Human-Access Door

The second type of functional door allows for human access. You need this to clean and repair the coop interior, fill feeders and waterers, and reach ailing birds who’ve sought shelter indoors.

More than the pop door, the human-access door heavily influences the design of your coop. If you want to walk around inside, your coop must have the height to accommodate both a full door and you.

Smaller coops feature back or side wall panels that hinge, allowing you to reach within and, if necessary, climb inside to clean, retrieve errantly laid eggs, and clean clogged pop-door tracks.

Some smaller henhouses feature roofs that hinge open for human access. For these, it’s absolutely vital to incorporate some sort of support to keep the roof secured open while you perform your chores. The last thing you want is a heavy coop roof to come crashing down on your head, causing a concussion.

After this happened to me—twice—Jae modified the design of our smaller coops. Now we access the interior through a side panel.

Following ages of reaching in and scrambling around inside either in a squat or on hands and knees, we have decided all future coops will feature full human-sized access. 

chicken coop
Frank Hyman

The Nest-Box Door

The final type of door your coop requires is a nest-box door, which allows you to easily retrieve eggs. The most common type is a rugged roof that lifts on a hinge.

Other styles include back panels that swing or slide open to allow for individual nest-box access. Whichever style door you choose for your nest boxes, make certain it opens easily enough for you—or your child—to collect eggs but still locks securely to prevent predators from doing the same. 

Chicken Coop Roosts

Every coop must include a roost, or perch, that accommodates your birds when they sleep. Some flock keepers use a sturdy branch cut to size. Most use a 2×2 or 2×4 with surfaces roughened by sandpaper to prevent chicken feet from slipping.

A chicken’s natural instinct is to roost high above the ground to keep out of the reach of predators. When deciding where to install your perch, provide enough clearance so your girls can both hop up without hitting their heads on the ceiling and perch comfortably without crouching.

Your perch must provide at least 10 inches of space per bird. If it is too short, birds will squabble for space and end up sleeping on the floor or in the nest box. Neither is a sanitary option.

You may wish to consider a stepped roost, which provides a series of spaced perches from just above floor level to just below the ceiling. While stepped roosts take up much more coop space than one individual perch, they do accommodate more birds and allow heavy breeds and aging chickens to perch closer to the ground. 

Coop Floors

Our coops have featured a variety of different floors throughout the years. Our earliest simply used the ground as a natural floor.

This is the most inexpensive option, yet it requires the most maintenance. Chickens tend to dig at the floor, either for bugs or to create dustbath pockets. An uneven floor is more difficult to keep clean and can cause medical conditions like bumblefoot to affect your hens.

Natural floors also more readily retain moisture, especially if you live in a rainy region. Predators can also tunnel under your coop walls and maraud your flock.

The Mesh Option

We also experimented with a fine hardware-mesh floor. This successfully kept opossums, raccoons and other digging carnivores out.

Unfortunately, to say our hens disliked the feel of the mesh on their feet would be a gross understatement. Every morning, we’d watch the girls try everything from flying directly from their perch to the pop door to tiptoeing, touching only the floor’s wooden framing, to avoid coming into contact with the mesh.

Wood You?

Wooden floors are a more practical option. They provide surface space for your birds and block predator access from below.

Exposure over the years to the corrosive ammonia and urea in chicken droppings will cause wooden floors to weaken and rot, so you’ll need to keep up on coop-floor maintenance. Our current coops feature wooden floors covered with linoleum flooring purchased from our local home-improvement center.

The linoleum protects the wood floor base. It makes spills and regular coop maintenance a breeze. 

If you are leaning toward a wooden or linoleum-covered floor, one final consideration is whether or not you’d like to elevate your coop. An elevated coop provides your birds with shade as well as shelter from both inclement weather and aerial predators.

Coops can be elevated on concrete stanchions. But it is better to select a coop whose blueprints already include corner and center posts via which the structure is elevated. 

Read more: Follow these tips to ensure good ventilation in the chicken coop.

Coop Vents

Proper ventilation is necessary to dissipate gases and to mitigate moisture found within the chicken coop. Without adequate ventilation, gases released from decomposing litter, feed and droppings will accumulate inside. This will toxically affect your flock.

The moisture from spilled water, droppings and condensation from your chickens’ breathing will remain inside, accelerating litter decomposition and causing other ill effects.

Proper ventilation—preferably in the form of at least two openings on opposite sides of the chicken coop—will correct these issues and provide your girls with fresh air year round.

Your vents can be as simple as two 5-by-5-inch openings cut high into opposing walls. They be also more complex, such as windows that slide open and lock shut.

Whatever form of ventilation you choose, make certain the openings are completely covered with fine hardware mesh. Even a one-inch gap is big enough to allow for predator access. (We learned this lesson the hard way our first year in business.)

Let’s Go Shopping

When you’ve determined exactly how you want these elements incorporated into your coop, it’s time to go shopping. Your first stop? Your local farm-supply store.

More than likely, they may stock ready-to-assemble kits for customers keeping a backyard micro flock of three to four birds. They may have catalogs you can browse featuring different chicken coop designs you can special order.

Other resources are your home-improvement store, lumber yard or shed sales store.

Many flock owners start out by buying a garden or storage shed, then customizing it to meet their chicken coop needs. If you are an architect—or know one—you can design your own coop, then hire a contractor to build it … or build it yourself.

Finally, you can search the internet for chicken coop blueprints or custom-built coops to find the henhouse of your dreams (or at least one that will be ready in time for your half-grown flock to move in). 

What about a run for your flock? We’ll discuss that topic next!

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