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_Fresh Air Poultry Houses_ (a book review and commentary)

Discussion in 'Coop & Run - Design, Construction, & Maintenance' started by patandchickens, Jan 7, 2010.

  1. patandchickens

    patandchickens Flock Mistress

    Apr 20, 2007
    Ontario, Canada
    ...you know, that 1924 book by Prince T. Woods MD that Robert Plamondon has reprinted.

    I finally got around to ordering and reading it over the holidays, since it sounded interesting and plus people keep rediscovering it excitedly about every two weeks on this forum and posting all in a swoon (or swivet) without apparently having actually read more than the sample chapter available for free online [​IMG]

    So, I thought it might be of interest to summarize the book's main points, discuss its arguments in a modern context, and offer a few opinions on what the 'take home message' might be for us, today.


    Apparently, in the first few decades of the 20th century, it was customary to keep chickens in fairly crowded and fairly "tight" (un- or poorly ventilated) coops. Frostbite and "roup" (which includes a nutritional deficiency and also Infectious Coryza; it is not clear to me whether these were distinguished between at the time) and other contagious respiratory illnesses were severe problems at the time, causing a lot of wintertime mortality. This was exacerbated by the fact that vitamins were not yet well understood and thus feed was not necessarily always nutritionally adequate.

    The author, continuing the work of a rather woo-woo and excess-prone bandwagon of the era advocating open windows and lotsa fresh air for everybody, has written this book for three main purposes: to convince readers that chickens are healthier in quarters with lots of fresh air, to recount his own experiences and coop designs, and to look at what a variety of other poultrymen had independantly built along those same lines.

    Contrary to what some earlier posts have said, the author did not live in Canada; he lived in eastern Massachusetts (Spring Lake, Plymouth Co.). He advocates a half-monitor-roof coop, 10x16'ish with the south-facing narrow end being "open" (albeit screened with hardwarecloth). The open front is only a little over 4' high, owing to the roof sloping down. There are seasonally-open side windows, and the windows on the half-monitor roof are also kept open most of the time, except only a crack in the worst winter weather. (A half-monitor roof is as if you took two shed-roofed buildings of unequal height and shoved their high sides together; or as if you took a normal gable-roofed building and dropped one side of the roof down several feet at the ridge, creating a vertical half-wall up there above the top of the lower roof. Woods is adamant that the extra sunlight admitted by these half-monitor roofs is a vital part of his design, though other peoples' designs are apparently successful without them). The roosts are along the back short side of the building, furthest from the open side. He describes a design for a 6x10' miniature version but does not consider it very satisfactory.

    He spends a couple chapters discussing his own designs in great detail, and devotes most of the rest of the book to a similarly detailed description of other peoples' coops in this style. Most of the people whose coops he describes were reasonably prominent in the poultry world of the era, from the way he talks about them. Designs include a 12x12 enclosed coop with an always-open doorway into a 12x12 roofed shed whose south wall is open, covered with a burlap or canvas curtain in bad weather; a 10x20 house, made from the old "closed" type with the 10' south-facing wall knocked out; a 10x20 house with the middle of the top half of the 20' south-facing wall always open; an 8x12' coop with the south wall mainly open but covered nearly fully with a canvas curtain in bad weather; some very large industrial-size long houses; and other similar variations on the theme. He gives lots of measured sketch plans, and goes into wonderful detail about construction and management details. I wish I could summarize it at more length here, there is a lot of good stuff. I would highly recommend this book for anyone contemplating constructing a largeish (by backyard standards) house for a good-sized flock.

    Alas, the author relies very heavily, in the style of the time alas, on quotation after quotation after quotation from people (both academic authorities and 'joe smith' type folks) saying basically Hey yeah, fresh air is the way to go. Glowing testimonials were probably a lot more persuasive in a less cynical age than they are now [​IMG], but unfortunately this takes the place of having anything much in the way of empirical evidence to cite in the book. I am willing to believe that at least a lot of his quotes are genuine and correctly report the writer's situation; still, it would have been nice to have more than just vigorous and repeated assertion to "prove" his points. What empirical evidence he does cite is pretty weebly, e.g. "here is a sketch of places in the coop where a wetted finger failed to detect a directional breeze on a windy day". Sigh.


    As you might imagine since I am the Big Ol' Ventilation Page person, I do not disagree in general Woods' overall recommendations or designs. I think it is beyond sensible question that lots of air exchange is best, especially in a hot or temperate climate, no matter what you may see other people building around you (then or now).

    That said, I think it is pretty important to view this book in context when contemplating coop design for Northern climates.

    First, I would like to point out that the author's descriptions of "fresh air coops" for northern climates are often not nearly as fresh air-y as BYCers who've not read the book often assume. His own design, for instance, involves having a house about twice as deep as it is wide (or 20 x 20'), and when windows are shut, as he says they are in the wintertime, only some (not all) of the fairly low front side remains open. On his 10x16' house for instance, the always-open portion is only about 9' wide x 3.5' high, as the roof slopes down and there is solid boarding at the very bottom of the wall. Many of the others he cites have even less area open in winter, to the point where my first reaction to a lot of the designs is "jeez, that's barely more than what I've been saying [​IMG]"

    The depth of the coop, and limited size of the opening, combined with no other openings elsewhere in the coop (when windows are closed in cold/bad weather) buffer the further-in portion of the coop from winds. All the other designs he reports on have similar features -- either the house is very deep and narrow away from the open front, or only a portion of the front is open, or curtains are used to further block the open front off in bad weather, or a combination of these things. Thus, he is talking specifically about coops designed to maximize ventilation while minimizing drafts inside... not just "any ole" open-sided coop. And I notice that the only fairly-small coop he describes -- an 8x12 design with the south-facing long side mostly-open, with a curtain available for nasty weather -- was used only for Wyandottes, not a large-single-combed breed. Those wishing to build coops along the lines of those detailed in the book -- and many of the designs seem, to me, to be quite good ones, and reasonable plans are given -- need to think long and hard about the physics/engineering if you're wanting to scale things down or modify designs.

    Secondly, Woods is clearly reacting (in fact he explicitly says so) to the *particular* style of poultrykeeping common at the time, involving heated closed coops with very poor if any ventilation and (not surprisingly) quite a lot of health problems, exacerbated by an as-yet-incomplete understanding of poultry nutrition. Because Vitamin D was only newly discovered when the book was published (in fact I don't recall Woods mentioning it at all?) and certainly it was not being supplemented in chicken feeds during the time period covered by this book, a significant amount of the poor fertility and poor survivability of chicks that his fresh-air houses seem to "fix" is likely due to vitamin D deficiency among chickens housed in the type of closed houses he describes as common. Clearly contagious diseases were a severe problem in those underventilated damp closed coops he's contrasting his to. He lauds his designs as producing litter that is so dry, it will burn! -- which is a kind of scary thought to me in terms of what it implies about those other coops, you know? [​IMG] So, with a bit better understanding of poultry biology it is not even remotely surprising that fresh air coops were often an improvement.

    But just because "fresh air" coops are reported by many of his correspondants to work "better" than the heated-and-underventilated coops that were common in that era, does not in and of itself make Woods' designs necessarily ideal. IMHO, the sensible question is "what level of ventilation is adequate to ensure freedom from health problems, without causing problems of its own or exposing birds to undue cold stress". Not only does Woods not discuss this question, he seems never to have considered it from that angle at all (in keeping with the tendency for the whole fresh-air movement of the times to go rather overboard). But I think this question is KEY.

    Woods admits that he (and others) have had some frostbite in these houses, although he dismisses it as 'no more than would have come out of a closed house'. He also makes repeated and somewhat cryptic reference to those who have tried fresh air houses and had bad results and gone back to closed houses (he is adamant that this be attributed not to the houses but to the people managing them), so clearly even as "vigorous" a booster as Woods is not prepared to claim they are foolproof.

    IMHO, it is an absolutely fascinating book in many ways (providing you can tune out its excesses and sometimes-strident tone), and offers a variety of good sound TESTED designs for those contemplating constructing reasonably large coops. I think it would be a mistake to assume that more is always better, or that Woods' testimonials and anecdotes are the last word on anything. After reading the book, I do not feel that I have any much better idea of a rule of thumb as to what is the minimal cold-winter ventilation that one can reasonably have with good results. But hopefully the book will encourage people to feel more confident in experimenting in this regard, both in cold climates and in milder ones. (He does btw include description of a rather effective-looking coop design for Texas, oriented towards providing shade and preventing rain blowing in too badly).

    So, it's a good book. Buy or borrow it, and read it, several times. But DO read the actual book -- not just the online sample chapter nor some BYCer's summary of it [​IMG] -- before committing to construction of something with a large open area in very cold-winter climates, because all is not as simple as a one-line advertisement may make it appear.

    (BTW, Robert Plamondon is my absolute HERO for reprinting this and other old books.)


    Last edited: Jan 7, 2010
  2. elmo

    elmo Chillin' With My Peeps

    May 23, 2009
    Thank you, Pat, for this informative review!
  3. fiberart57

    fiberart57 Chillin' With My Peeps

    May 31, 2009
    Pat, you make some good points including the phenomena well known to educators as TYNT - This Year's New Thing. As I recall, it was this period in history that tubercullosis was somewhat common and the belief was to send people out West for the hot dry air; with the idea being that fresh air is good for them. Well, it is, but even in Tucson, home to one of the earliest TB sanitoriums, they didn't leave people out exposed to the cold and wind.

    Trends may come and go and it's nice that some animals are so patient to put up with we humans when we try new things.

  4. patandchickens

    patandchickens Flock Mistress

    Apr 20, 2007
    Ontario, Canada
    Quote:You might think they didn't. But, oddly enough, according to the first chapter of Woods' book:

    "An interesting article by A.O. Neal, REgistrar of the University of Arizona, Tucson, in "The Nation's Heatlth", tells that it is obligatory for all students who live on the college grounds, to sleep in the open air. All dormitories are provided with open-air sleeping-porches. Both men and women are required to sleep outside of their study rooms on open-frounted porches. Canvas curtains are provided for use in case of driving storms"


    "About a dozen years ago, J.P.Muller, one-time lieutenant in the Danish army and later inspector to the Vejlefjord Sanatorium, published <snip> "During the four and a half years that I was inspector to the Vejlefjord Sanatorium, I saw to it that the more than one thousand patients had the windows of their bedrooms wide open, even during storms and the depth of winter."

    and, from a later chapter,

    "For a number of years Massachusetts has been testing open-air classes in the public schools. <snip> Physically debilitated children who are not ill to a degree to make hospital or home treatment necessary, but who are in such a lowered physical condition that the routine classroom program would be unprofitable both mentally and physically, are in these classes." <goes on to highly laud the results of this, and reports low rate of absence due to illness even in below-zero weather in February>

    Overcorrecting a percieved problem happened just as much 90 yrs ago as it does these days [​IMG]

    Let me be clear, I am not criticizing Woods' general message. And I do, in fact, think that amply-ventilated coops ARE quite appropriate for northern climates (perhaps even moreso than I think they are, I dunno). I just think that he, and some of the folks he has been listening to, maybe could have stood a bit less dogma and a bit more moderation [​IMG]

  5. CityChook

    CityChook Chillin' With My Peeps

    Apr 9, 2008
    Minneapolis, MN
    My Coop
    Outstanding, Pat. As always. You should consider copying this information over to your page so it can be referenced.

    We're experiencing 15mph winds with blowing snow today. It's 2 pm and 7F outside with the temps falling and that's the warmest it's going to get for the next 3 days. I simply could not imagine having an open sided (or even open windowed) coop at this time. Even if the open sides are minimal at best. I have not gotten to the point yet of needing to close off my gable vents (won't do that until well below 0) but also haven't opened the pop door now in over a week. Chooks are doing fine, but probably quite bored.

    I have seen many of the posts regarding the information in this book. I appreciate your review and synopsis.
  6. patandchickens

    patandchickens Flock Mistress

    Apr 20, 2007
    Ontario, Canada
    I should probably add, reading this book has convinced me to build something along those lines for next winter (for some 'spare' birds, not my good Sussexes, call me a weenie if you want [​IMG]) to see how it behaves [​IMG]

    Personally, I have no problem with the general concept of an unheated coop dropping into the minus temperatures -- it sounds quite reasonable to me for intelligently-chosen chicken breeds, providing one can engineer things to keep the air as still as possible (which is quite doable, and many of the designs described in the book are likely to achieve it), and keep the interior of the house dry enough (which to me is the bigger questionmark, probably varying among regions and sites and details of coop construction/mgmt).

  7. rosco

    rosco Chillin' With My Peeps

    Nov 24, 2009
    Texas Panhandle
    Excellent review! you should think about submitting to the publisher.
  8. chookchick

    chookchick Chillin' With My Peeps

    Aug 18, 2008
    Olympia WA
    Is that where you've been, reading the "fresh air" book? [​IMG] Can you give an idea of the percentage of vertical wall space of each coop that was ventilation? That would be interesting for comparison purposes.
  9. PandoraTaylor

    PandoraTaylor RT Poultry n Things

    Jun 29, 2009
    I agree, I bought the whole collection that Robert Plamondon has reprinted.
    After reading them repeatedly and being from the north, believe to some extent that I should have summer & winter coops, and the windows, & ventilation will have to be different in both, as to what degree only experience and trial & error will teach me.
  10. patandchickens

    patandchickens Flock Mistress

    Apr 20, 2007
    Ontario, Canada
    Quote:Ha, no, I was visiting family in PA for the holidays and my computer was broken before and after as well [​IMG]

    Can you give an idea of the percentage of vertical wall space of each coop that was ventilation? That would be interesting for comparison purposes.

    Hm, interesting question! Here is an attempt at doing it for some of the designs in the book. Some guesstimation is involved because I am too lazy to sit down and actually do complex math for funky shapes or use inches rather than feet, but they should be "good enough for government work" as they say [​IMG]. I have calculated wall area as only SOLID wall, including closeable windows but not including the always-open front. You can recalculate if you want. Someone finds math errors here, by all means tell me, I am not a number genius [​IMG]

    Woods 10x16 house: total floor area 160 sq ft
    total solid wall area approx 185 sq ft
    wall window area 10 sq ft
    monitor window area approx 10 sq ft
    "always open" front area approx 12 sq ft (in winter, this is the only opening, except monitor windows open sunny days)

    maximum openable area (front + windows) = 32 sq ft = about 17% of wall area, or 20% of floor area
    winter mininum open area = 12 sq ft = 6.5% of wall area, or 7.5% of floor area

    Tolman old-style closed house with south (short) wall knocked out:
    total floor area 200 sq ft
    total solid wall area 250 sq ft
    wall window area ?approx 24 sq ft
    always-open front area 50 sq ft

    maximum openable area (front+windows) = 74 sq ft = 30% of wall area, or 37% of floor area
    winter minimum open area = 50 sq ft = 20% of wall area, or 25% of floor area

    Tolman 10x17' open air house:
    total floor area 170 sq ft
    total solid wall area approx 240 sq ft
    wall window area 8 sq ft
    always-open front area 40 sq ft

    maximum openable area (front+window) = 48 sq ft = 20% of wall area, or 28% of floor area
    winter minimum open area = 40 sq ft = 16.5% of wall area, or 23.5% of floor area

    Remember that SHAPE (three-dimensionally, not just floor plan) is critical to controlling airflow and preventing windiness, so these numbers do not tell the whole story -- and in retrospect maybe I should have calculated things as percentage of total wall area including the open front, you can reconstruct that from the above numbers but I have to go deal with a 2 year old right now so am not going to redo it myself [​IMG] -- but it is still probably quite informative and interesting to compare these numbers with other coops, to get a general sense of things. Be interesting to do for all the other designs in the book too, but again, mommyhood calls [​IMG]

    Thanks for making me do this, it was interesting [​IMG]


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