Launching the USS EggSurprise
Figuring Out What We Needed
We had barely started thinking about a coop when the chicks arrived. All seven of them were shipped overnight in a box just bigger than a shoebox, so we figured we had a good long time before they'd be big enough to need a place of their own. Boy, did we underestimate how fast they grow. It took us 3 months to build the coop, and in that time they lived in a plastic storage container for a while, then in a small 3'x3'x3' cube mini-coop that I put together in the basement out of scrap wood. By the time the coop was ready at end of the third month they were packed in there like oysters.
Our first step in designing the coop was to look through the designs on backyardchickens.com and come up with a basic list of features that we wanted to incorporate. We chose to make the enclosed coop roughly 5' by 6', sitting in a run that's 6' wide and 14' long. We wanted to be able to support roughly 7 to 10 hens, so we wanted 3 nest boxes, that could be accessed from the outside so we could snatch their eggs without having to climb in. We wanted several roosts, in both the coop and the run, that were at least a couple feet off the ground and could be removed for easy cleaning. We wanted a large access door so we could walk in to clean the coop, and a linoleum sheet floor so we could wash it down. Windows would be useful for both light and ventilation, and additional vent holes opening out to the run would be handy both for the winter when it was too cold to open the windows, and in the summer when the extra ventilation could help keep them cool. The chickens would need a small (1'x1') door (that could be shut on cold nights) and a ramp with wood treads so they could walk down into the run. The coop itself should be suspended off the ground to keep it from getting damp, and this would also give them a shady underneath area to retreat to on hot days. We wanted the food and water to hang from chains so they didn't fill up with kicked up wood shavings, and a heat lamp for those cold New England winters. Finally, the whole coop and attached run needed to be predator-proof; the coop doors would need to be padlocked because raccoons are clever enough to defeat most latches with enough time, and the run needed to be surrounded, on the sides and below, with 1/2" 'hardware cloth' (a metal mesh grid that's tighter knit and sturdier than chicken wire).
Then, there were a few optional features we'd like to add. These included: 1) an automatic door that would open at dawn and close at dusk 2) A lamp that would give the hens 16 hours of light per day, which increases egg production 3) A cabinet in the coop itself for storing the large bag of food, so we don't have to haul it around each time we feed them 4) A remote thermometer so we could check the coop temperature from inside the house, and 5) A wifi webcam so we could check up on the chickens at any time.
Now that we knew the requirements, it was time to come up with a design. We drew from some of the designs on backyardchickens.com. I also ordered the book Building Chicken Coops for Dummies, which was extremely helpful in making up for what I lacked in carpentry experience. I drew up a few sketches, but I wanted a more precise way of laying out the design, so I could catch mistakes and oversights ahead of time, and so that there wouldn't be any guessing at lengths when it came time to cut wood. I decided to use SketchUp to do this. I had never used it before, but I found it easy to learn through a bunch of short tutorial videos that Google provides. SketchUp's approach is very well suited to building projects like this; lining up boards is a snap, and when it comes time to figure out what length a board needs to be cut to, it's literally just as easy as taking a tape measure to the board in SketchUp. However, it's not without its quirks; I found some operations that should be trivial to be downright frustrating in SketchUp, such as cutting holes for windows in the middle of a piece of plywood. On the whole, though, I would recommend it -- especially for designing the frame of your coop.
If you'd like to check out the 3D SketchUp model/plans for our coop, you can download it here. The model is pictured below.
We chose a spot in our backyard that was sunny (to help them keep warm in the winter) and didn't have any large overhanging branches (which tend to fall during heavy snowstorms). This is where the previous owners of the house had a raised garden bed, so job one was to clear that out.
The Lay of the Land
That part of the yard was on a small slope, so we next had to level the area. We'd recently gotten a small but peppy roto-tiller for gardening (the Troy-Bilt TB154), and this was a great help in loosening the ground.
We used cinder blocks for the foundation. First I planted stakes in the ground at the four corners, connected them with string, and used a line level to get it as close as possible to being a flat plane. I then used the string as a guide to place the cinder blocks. The dimensions of the foundation weren't a perfect fit for the length of the blocks, so the extra gaps were filled in with mortar. I also used mortar between all of the blocks to help hold them together.
Using 1/2" hardware cloth tied together with plastic zip-ties, I built an underground "cage" to keep burrowing animals out of the run. the sides of the cage extended up a few inches above the foundation, so that I could attach them to the wood base of the structure, leaving no gaps for resourceful predators to exploit.
Over the hardware cloth cage, we laid a layer of gravel (to help with drainage; there will be a roof overhead, but since the coop is on a slope, we wanted to make sure that water can flow through the gravel rather than making a river through the run). We then buried the gravel in a couple of inches of soil.
Meanwhile, in the garage, I was putting together the frame segments. I used nails to assemble the 2x4s, and attached the hardware cloth "walls" to the sides of the segments of the run's frame at this stage, when they could be laid out on the ground. I also stained several sections at this stage (and in retrospect I wish I had stained all of the wood before raising the frame and making it much less accessible). Below is a picture of several frame segments waiting in my garage to be deployed.
The next step was the most fun -- raising the frame. We placed a base of 4x4 pressure treated wood on the cinder block foundation and rested the frame on top of that. The two side frame segments are held together by the coop floor joists (we used 2x4s for these also), which were then covered by a 3/4" plywood floor. All of the wood was either primed or stained, to protect it from dampness. Here we also see the concrete blocks that had previously surrounded the old raised garden bed, recycled as a sort of sidewalk around the coop.
Next, the final frame segments went up, the front and back walls of the coop, which actually sit on top of the coop floor. Also, below, we've added the roof rafters (again, 2x4s).
Topping It All Off
We used 1/2" plywood for the roof, covered with a layer of tar paper...
...which was then covered with Ondura corrugated roof panels. By this point we didn't want rain water pooling up on the floor plywood, so the coop area is wrapped in a plastic tarp.
The Walls Go Up
The next step was to attach boards to the sides and bottoms of the eaves, to keep bugs out of the coop walls and predators out of the run. Below, we've attached the first interior wall. We used 1/2" plywood for both the interior and exterior walls.
By this point I'd learned my lesson, that it's much easier to paint the pieces before putting them up. Painting them on my garage floor meant they were easy to reach, and I didn't have to mask off surrounding pieces. Here's my garage full of interior wall pieces, waiting for their paint to dry.
Another lesson I learned quickly was that, while using nails is a bit quicker and was certainly sufficient for the 'rough' work of building the frame segments, for everything else I used screws instead. The biggest advantage to this was when I made a mistake, or needed to remove a piece for whatever reason to access what was behind it. Screws saved me from many, many headaches. I find that they fasten more tightly than nails, too.
Below, the final interior wall segments have been put up and the eaves have received their final coats of paint (which I regretted not having put on before attaching the eaves to the roof). I've also installed the automatic electric door. We used Murray McMurray's Coop Controller, which not only opens the door at sunrise and closes it at sunset, but also keeps the door closed when the temperature is below 20 degrees, and powers an LED light panel for 16 hours each day, allowing the chickens 8 hours of darkness starting at sunset. So far, this is working great (except that ours had a defective timing chip for the light, but Murray McMurray was happy to repair it and pay the cost for shipping it back).
Fiberglass insulation in the walls, to keep the chickens cozy:
Here's our first finished exterior wall. Note the shed on the far side of the coop... we soon realized that there was a fox den under there, no more than 10 feet from where our chickens will be living. This was further impetus to build it as predator-proof as possible.
More exterior walls going up, and windows going in. We bought a pair of basement sliding windows at a local hardware outlet store.
The final exterior wall goes up, and the run door is attached. Rather than build the door, we bought a porch screen door at Lowes. We covered its light-duty screen with sheets of the 1/2" hardware cloth to make it secure. We later did this with the windows and vent holes, too.
Approaching the end of the project, the list of final details seems ever-expanding. Doors, trim, the ramp, vent covers, retaining wall, interior cabinet, silicone sealing, paint touch-ups, etc. Not rushing through these kinds of details makes a big difference in the long run to how safe and comfortable the coop is for the chickens and how convenient and aesthetically pleasing it is for us.
The access door in the rear is made up of four small doors. This way the top doors can be opened for reaching in to change food and water, without opening the bottom doors which might let wood shavings, and chickens, escape. The insides of the doors have boards attached that cover the gaps to prevent cold air from getting in, and which also require that the doors on the right side need to open before the doors on the left can open, and the doors on the top need to open before the doors on the bottom can open. This means that all we have to do is make sure the upper right door is shut tight, and so all of them will be shut tight. We have spring bolt latches at the top and bottom to keep the doors flush with the wall, and a padlock to keep out crafty predators. Note that we leave the key hanging from a metal wire beside the padlock. We're trying to keep raccoons out, not people.
The nest box access door is a simpler version of the rear access door. We used 6" hinges for this one, while the rear access door required smaller 4" hinges. Note the hardware cloth covering the window.
Here's the inside wall of the coop, facing the run. Roosts are mounted diagonally on either side of the door, so chickens can just hop onto a roost from the ramp. Toward the top, two vent holes are surrounded by a frame, with sliding panels that can cover them to keep the cold out when necessary. The small rectangular hole above this is for a webcam to look out at the run; it turns out the view through that hole is partially obscured by the frame around the vents, so we'll need to come up with a better solution.
Here's a close-up of one of the vent holes. The sliding panel is made of 1/2" playwood, with a layer of felt around the edges on the back side, to make a tight fit and keep out drafts. The frame around the vents is made of a layer of 3/4" plywood (so as to be thicker than the 1/2" plywood of the sliding panels, and allow them to move) topped off with 1/2" pine boards.
A close-up of the top of the ramp, and the track for the sliding automatic door. The ramp is connected to its frame by hinges, so that it can be raised when we want to work in the run. Using hook-and-eye latches, the raised ramp stays up by attaching to the frame around the vent holes.
The finished door to the run. It's also closed with a padlock, with the key left hanging beside it. The day raccoons figure out how to put a key in a lock, I quit.
Finished At Last
The final details are added: the hardware for locking the doors, the frame around the vent holes and sliding covers for the vents, the roosts, and of course the "USS EggSurprise" sign.
Here's a view of the interior, right before the hens moved in. To the left are the three nest boxes, which rather than building we bought from Kuhl. To the right are three roosts, and a small cabinet for housing the feed bag and scoop. The closed door in the center houses the electrical wiring and the controller of the automatic door to the run. In the upper left corner is the wi-fi webcam that we installed, to be able to keep an eye on the chickens from in the house (or anywhere with internet access). We used the D-Link DCS-932L for this. It was easy to set up and has built in night vision.
Finally, the big day arrives and our hens move out of the basement and into their new digs. Here, Sprite, Hettie and Cocoa are taking their first tentative steps out of the coop and into the run.
And here are Chloe, Crikey and Cocoa, sound asleep in the middle of the night, brought to us via the night vision camera.
The chickens have only just moved in, but so far so good. I haven't added up the Lowes receipts, but I'd estimate the cost of the coop came out to over $1500 -- plus probably a few hundred hours of work. Looking at it in those terms, maybe it would have been more cost effective to pay for a comparable size coop, or else buy a small shed, add a run and convert it to a coop. But, for me at least, gaining the experience and the accomplishment of building this myself, and ending up with exactly the coop that we wanted for our hens, made it a worthwhile investment of time, money and effort.
I'll leave you with a time lapse video of the coop construction. 3 months compressed into 30 seconds -- makes it look simple, doesn't it?