Sunday, November 16, 2008

Winter Coop Considerations

I found this excellent article on keeping chickens warm in the winter. Please read it carefully as it debunks many old beliefs about keeping our girls warm in the winter.

Robert Plamondon's Poultry & Rural Living Newsletter, Mid-November Bonus Issue

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Chicken Coop or Chicken Dungeon?

If you want to see something scary, just search for "chicken coop" on YouTube and look at the chicken houses so proudly displayed by their owners. As you watch, ask yourself, "Don't these things have any ventilation at all?" Because they don't! Close the doors and hatches, and they're about as well-ventilated as a coffin.

Here, check it out for yourself.

What could be the point of confining chickens to an airless cubicle? Two reasons are usually given, neither of which make much sense:

  1. To protect the chickens from drafts.
  2. To keep the chickens warm.

Protection from Drafts

Do chickens need to be protected from drafts? Why?

Before about 1875, few people knew that disease was caused by microbes. In fact, it was common knowledge that fresh air caused disease! (Indoor air, on the other hand, was safe.) Drafts caused colds, swamp air caused malaria, and so on. So when people talk about "protecting chickens from drafts," they're repeating a superstition that was discredited over a hundred years ago.

Realistically, adult chickens are very resistant to cold, and if you give them the opportunity to stay mostly dry and mostly out of the wind, they will do just fine. Chickens roosting in pine trees through New England winters tend to be at least as healthy as their brethren in chicken houses. Totally open chicken houses, with a roof but no walls other than chicken wire (and no way for the chickens to get out of the wind), were used in the Fifties as far north as Oregon with good results. Winter egg production fell whenever daytime highs were much below freezing, but (according to experiments done by the Oregon Experiment Station) such hens were at least as healthy as the control group in conventional chicken houses. In other words, total confinement is at least as unhealthy as total exposure. The middle ground, as usual, is worth a good hard look.

(I'll have to post the Experiment Station bulletins on open housing to my Web site sometime. They make interesting reading.)

Can You Keep Chickens Warm in an Unheated Coop?

The other reason for eliminating all ventilation from a chicken coop is to keep it warm. Does this work? Can an unheated shed be kept warm just by eliminating ventilation? Of course not!

Chickens put out a significant amount of body heat, but they also put out a lot of moisture through respiration and manure. This is a package deal; you can't have the heat without the moisture. If you shut in your flock to retain the heat, you get a great deal of dampness and ammonia, both of which are bad for the birds. Chickens get frostbite on their combs and wattles in a damp house if temperatures fall below freezing, but they are much more resistant to this in a dry house. A damp house is also filthy, smelly house. It promotes disease. And the ammonia generated by the manure is a poison gas that irritates the chickens' lungs and can bind them in high concentrations.

The usual way of controlling dampness is through ventilation. You allow at least as much ventilation as is needed to keep the dampness low and the air quality high, and give up on trying to control the temperature. Roof insulation also helps control dampness, or, at the very least, prevents condensation from forming on the ceiling and dripping onto the chickens.

Open-Front Housing

The open-air revolution started around 1900 with the idea that fresh air was good and dampness was bad, while low temperatures inside the chicken house were tolerable. This was a huge success. Starting around 1908, for example, the Oregon Experiment Station introduced houses with very large window openings that were never closed -- no glass, no shutters, no curtains. Just chicken wire. They immediately started setting all-time laying records in these houses. In fact, they noticed that many of their best-laying hens didn't roost in the back of the house with the others, but perched on the nest boxes near the front, where they got an extra helping of fresh air and weather. So a second version of the house, with even larger openings, was introduced. Similar results were obtained by virtually everyone who tried it, in all climates. Closed houses are unhealthy and unproductive in any climate: open houses are better.

Closed houses also promote disease transmission from bird to bird because there's no ventilation to dilute and remove airborne pathogens.

In the commercial poultry industry, open-front housing has been dominant ever since. Modern commercial chicken houses are so crowded that, with the addition of roof insulation and curtains to cover the openings in severe weather, the chickens' body heat alone can keep the inside temperature above freezing in cold weather, thus preventing the automatic watering system from failing and, if the juggling between air quality and warmth can be done successfully (which is not guaranteed even with computer-controlled curtains), can lead to higher yield. But none of this works with small flocks -- it takes a big flock in a big, crowded house.

With backyarders, fanciers, and other small-flock owners, though, the practical lessons of Twentieth-Century farming are constantly being forgotten. A generation or two separate the practical diversified farms of yesteryear from today's small-flock owners, and there's a simlar gulf between us and today's big industrialized operations. Too often this means that Nineteenth-Century superstitions sneak back in and mess everybody up.

I've certainly had good results with my own open housing, which has never caused the chickens to become ill even in dreadful weather. Heck, even hens who insist on roosting on the roofs of the houses stay healthy through freezing weather and continual Oregon rain. On the other hand, the idea of taking my happy free range chickens and shutting them into an unventilated box creeps me out.

When I realized how completely the concept of open-front winter housing has been forgotten (and how unhealthy many people's chicken houses are), I knew that I had to bring the concept back into vogue. After weighing the alternatives, I decided to republish the definitive book on the subject, Fresh-Air Poultry Houses by Prince T. Woods. Dr. Woods was a poultry health expert who wrote this book after many years investigating open-front housing, and after many Experiment Stations had vindicated his conclusions. I would have liked to publish something a little more modern than this 1924 book, since it was written before plywood and corrugated sheet metal became the building materials of choice, but as far as I can tell, no such book has ever been written.

Other than the lack of up-to-date building materials, the information in this book can pretty much be cut out and pasted down. There's a lot more here than just house plans: he talks about all kinds of management issues. He also addresses every conceivable objection to open-front chicken houses.

I have posted Chapter 2 to my Web site. It's a detailed and compelling introduction to the topic. Check it out: I'm sure you'll find it interesting.

You Can Help Me Out

If you love a Norton Creek Press book, you can help me out by posting a brief review on The customers at rely on reader reviews and tend to avoid titles that don't have any, and most of my titles don't have any. You can post a review whether you bought the book on Amazon or not, but you have to have an Amazon account.

Submitting a review is easy if you're already an customer, and even a couple of lines that mention one or two things you liked in the book will be helpful to other readers. Thanks!

You can use these links to go directly to the relevant book review page: Feeding Poultry, Genetics of the Fowl, Gold in the Grass, We Wanted a Farm, Ten Acres Enough, The Dollar Hen, Success With Baby Chicks, Through Dungeons Deep, The Dollar Hen.

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Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Sliding Floor for Cleanout of Roost Box

Sliding Floor for Easy Clean-out of Roost Box

What is not shown on the video is a small flap cut into the side of the roost box area opposite the egg door. Cut a rectangular opening about 4 inches high across the 24" plywood side panel. The bottom of the rectangle should be even with the top of the floor to the roost box. Hinge the rectangle on the top side. Install a to keep out predators. Then cut a thin sheet of plywood (1/4 or so) which will slide over the roost box floor. To allow the plywood to cover more area, consider adding a floor to the nest box, then suspending the nest box an inch or so above the roost floor. This will allow you to slide the removable floor under the nest box. Alternatively, you can cut a rectangle out of the sliding floor so that it does not hit the nest box.

The color, three dimensional drawings will show the opening for the cleanout. There is also a photo of a builder who has installed this feature. The size of the plywood floor is roughly 2' x 4'. You will have to cut it down a bit to fit your particular application,.

Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Photobucket Access

I have mixed up the password and ID on some of the plans.

Here is how to access the photos. Go to and enter the following

User IDis : isthmushanyman

Password is: playhouse

I apologize for the error.


Tuesday, June 10, 2008

How Many Boards to Buy?

Some of you have written to ask me to calculate the number of boards you need to purchase from the lumber yard. I have included in the plans the lengths of the boards, but did not give you a shopping list per se. Here I will list the lengths of boards and the number to purchase.

First, consider finding used decking materials that can be recycled. The coop is designed to allow older looking deck boards to be used for the frame without detracting significantly from the sharp appearance. A post on might net you some used lumber and a substantial savings on your coop materials.

Whether new or used, you will need the following deckboards to build the 4 x 8 coop.

The 5/4" that I use to name the deckboards refers to the rough dimension of the lumber before it is planed smooth. After planing, the boards will measure 1" thick, not the 5/4" for which they are named.

4 deckboards measuring 1" x 5 1/2" x 10' in length

13 deckboards measuring 1" x 5 1/2" x 8' in length

Please consider these numbers as estimates. The actual quantity depends on your building choices. This will give you an idea for your first trip to the lumber yard.

If you find that the 12 footer are nicer and straighter than the 8 footers as often is the case, then you will need to purchase only 10 of the 12 footers instead of 13 of the 8 footers.

I hope this helps. Please give me some feedback once you build your coop.

Saturday, June 7, 2008

Tools Needed to Build the Playhouse Coop

There are some basic tools that you will need to complete this carpentry project. While all of the cut can be done with hand tools, a few power tools will make the job much easier and more satisfying.

As for power tools, I recommend the following: A circular saw ,a jig saw and a cordless drill/driver and a table saw. The table saw will make the rips (cutting a board lengthwise) easier. While a circular saw can perform this, the time and end results will not be the same.

As for hand tools, the basic tool chest will suffice. Additionally, a good pair of tin snips will be needed and a rivet tool will add a nice finished look to the metal roof.

The four sides of the coop are best built on a flat surface. Saw horses will decrease the amount of bending over needed. A good square and level will also help.

Make sure that you know how to properly operate all the tools before beginning. If you are not comfortable with the tool, please consider asking a friend or neighbor for help. You might be surprised at how much neighbors enjoy showing off our carpentry skills by helping you out.

Do think through all the different phases of the building process before beginning to cut your first board. Much time and frustration can be spared by giving careful thought to the entire process.

Best of building success!

Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Cost of Materials

I have been receiving email reports from around the Us from you the builders updating me on the availability and price of the materials for the Playhouse Coop. It seems that prices vary from region to region, making it impossible for me to estimate your costs.

Here in the Midwest, I used materials in my design that were affordable. IN your region, you may need to make some alterations in order to keep the coop in the affordable price range.

The metal standing seam roofing materials seems to be the most problematic. First, check out ABC Supply for a dealer nearest you. They will let you know the cost and if they will sell pre-cut sections. Also, consider not using the fancy color matched screws they offer and head to the local hardware store. A rubber grommet and screw can be purchased there for less. You will need to paint the heads if you want them to match the roofing color.

The big box lumber stores offer roofing options for a lower price. Corrugated rubberized materials can be purchased there.

The framing lumber I use is 5/4" cedar decking. 5/4" is really 1" thick but it is not a "one by six" rather a "5/4 by six deck board". I know it is confusing but that is the way the lumber is sized and I needed to be technical so you will be able to tell the lumber yard what you really want. The deck board measures 1" thick by 5 1/2" wide.

If the cedar is pricey in your area, consider using spruce, pine or fir (SPF). These are the standard 2 x 4s or 2 x 3s sold at the lumber yards or chain big bix stores. This wood will hold up for many years if treated and kept away from contact with the dirt. Consider using a rot resistant wood for the base only.

Wire prices also vary. While there are animals that have been known to tear through the traditional hexagonal chicken wire, it may by a suitable option if the price/risk ratio is right. In other words, if it is costing an arm and half a leg to buy the 100' roll of 1" galvanized wire for the covering, consider the risks and use the more available and less expensive poultry cloth or chicken wire. You may need to add a couple of extra vertical studs to have a seam where you can attach the wire. This still might save some money. I contacted online the Mazel company to find a dealer locally. Here in the farm Midwest, these supplies are available at a lower cost than other regions.

Finally, the wire on the bottom may not be necessary either. If it means purchasing an extra roll of wire and having the rest sit in your garage, then perhaps there are less expensive ways to secure the coop from digging predators. Use your judgment and your imagination. Some have burried a 12" wide fence around the perimeter of the coop to discourage diggers.

Please keep me posted on what you find for materials in your area. I will post your findings in an attempt to keep others updatedPublish Post on what to expect.

Best of Building Success!!

Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Coop Construction Times and Experience Needed

Many have asked me to calculate the number of hours it takes to construct the coop. I frankly never know how to answer this. Even among skilled builders times vary. For the 4 x 8 coop, I think that amateur builder will need a couple of weekends to construct the coop. Planning is the key to making the most of your time. Spend some time looking over the plans with someone from you lumber yard BEFORE the building day arrives. Having all the materials at hand makes the job so much more enjoyable and certainly keeps the builders happy.

Another question is the skill level. I would say that overall this is a beginner to intermediate project. It would not be the first project I would recommend to first time- builders. There are too many moving parts involved! However, with the aid of a more experienced builder on engineer minded person, many have successfully finished this project with very little previous experience. Because a certain skill level is needed, you will notice that the plans do not take you through the construction stages in a step-by-step fashion. I don't want to discourage builders, but I neither want to pretend that I am able to guide you through the entire process. The plans are just that, design ideas that will allow you to put your creative problem solving skills to use on a basic design.

Tracking down the necessary materials takes time too, so plan to do some searching at a couple of hardware stores and lumber yards. I suggest you decide on and begin with the roofing materials as this is often the most difficult and expensive to find. There are less expensive alternative which I mention in the plans and are shown in some of the photos at the photobucket site.

The Nest Box

Many of you have good questions concerning the number of nest boxes needed for the Playhouse coop. Most chicken people agree that one nest box can be shared by up to 5-6 layers. In the 4 x 8 and 4 x 6 version I specify only one nest box. For the 8 x 8 version, two boxes sit side by side and can be accessed by a single egg door. This works all fine and well until one of the hens goes "broody" This is when she wants to sit on her eggs, (in the nest box of course) day and night until they hatch. Thoughts on a broody hen can be found elsewhere on the web or in books.

The nest box is a cube framed with scraps of plywood and the framing members. construction is not critical. Size matters. I try to make sure that the overall dimensions are 12" x 12" x12". The photos in the plans should give you an adequate idea of how to construct it. In essence, think of making a cube of framing wood and plywood, , then removing two opposite sides of the plywood. One side allow the hens access, the other allows access to the egg collector. If the hens are not using the nest box and laying elsewhere, try making it a bit larger. A little straw in the bottom will also be needed.

If you are using a slide out plywood floor on the bottom of the roost box, then consider hanging the nest box a few inches off the floor and attaching it with screws to the wall of the roost box. This will allow the slide-out 1/4" plywood floor to slide under the nest box. When roosting, the birds tend to sit on the flat roof of the nest box and drop their droppings in the space between the roost box wall the nest box.

Sunday, May 11, 2008

Welcome to the Playhouse Coop Update Blog

Hello and welcome chicken coop builders. I want to thank you for choosing my Playhouse Coop design for your poultry house. I hope that the plans you purchased from me or from one of my retail sites will provide you with the essential information to undertake the construction of this coop.

While I have striven to provide you with the necessary photos, measurements, plans and descriptions, I have learned that it is impossible to answers everyone question with a one time document. Therefore, I have created this blog in order to provide you the builder with updates, hints, materials substitutions, design alternatives and general encouragement as you send them to me. In short, I see these plans as a continual work in progress, one for which I can use your insights and observations.

As you build, please make note of any part of the building process that you find needs further clarification or more information. Then send me an email at and I will post your findings on this blog. This will serve to help others who might share your questions. I would like to post your photos also, so consider taking a few pics of the process as well as of the finished product. Others will appreciate your willingness to share your perspectives.

If you can offer alternative designs or substitute materials, please email me this information also.

In this way I hope that together we can continue to introduce more people to the fascinating and sustainable hobby of raising chickens in our yards. I look forward to hearing from you.

I wish you the very best of building success.

Dennis Harrison-Noonan

Isthmus Handyman LLC