Tuesday, May 6, 2014

Redesigning the Chicken Ark: Unadilla Community Farm

This year, I'm teaming up with Unadilla Community Farm to help put in the infrastructure for their new 12-acre organic farming project. So far it's been a very challenging and exciting experience: through group consensus with community members and visiting apprentices alike, we're laying the foundations for a new community-based organic farm in central New York state.

Our first natural building project has been the chicken ark, a mobile 10-hen coop that exemplifies the mission of the project: it's built with natural, locally sourced or salvaged materials; designed with the health and comfort of its inhabitants in mind; and it improves upon an existing design for DIY coop builders. We hope our chicken ark will inspire other coop builders, and maybe give them some ideas for their own projects!

This week, after putting the finishing touches on our new chicken ark, we invited over the nearby Children's Center to take a look:

Our chicken ark design is based on John Grogan's plans, available for free from organicgardening.com (and shown in the image below). But we have, of course, made a few embellishments of our own to the original design!

While the original plans will make an ark large enough for 6-7 chickens, we scaled up our ark to hold 10. We also replaced the plywood and metal roofing with pine purlins and staggered cedar shingles, to match our soon-to-be-built cottage's roof at the farm.

Possibly our most exciting embellishment has been our new hinge system for the roof hatch. We wanted a watertight cedar shingle roof, but we also wanted one side of the roof to open up. After a lot of brainstorming, we came up with an elegant solution: we took some pivot/pocket door hinges from a salvaged entertainment center and mortised them into our A-frames. Now the roof hatch can slide out from under the upper courses of shingles, before swinging open on regular strap hinges.

Our chicken ark has 3 nesting boxes on one side, and 2 on the other, all with 10" high ceilings and smaller entrances. The lower ceiling (standard is 12") encourages the hen to go in and sit down, rather than stand up and dig through the bedding. This keeps the bedding in place longer. The smaller entrances to the nesting boxes also help keep the bedding in place, and the hen theoretically feels safer inside, all cozy and with a single porthole to peer out of.

We tried making the nesting boxes in different sizes: the two big ones are 18" wide by 12" deep, while the three on the other end are 10" wide by 12" deep. We weren't sure if they would like the smaller boxes as much, but actually the small corner box with the white leghorn in it in the photo above is their favorite - possibly because it's conveniently located right at the top of the ramp.

Finally, we decorated our chicken ark with an old wood burning kit I've had since I was a kid. To help our ark survive the elements, we gave all exterior wood a coat or two of raw linseed oil, except for the 6 legs of the ark, which were given 6 coats with a mix of linseed oil and beeswax. This natural finish will probably need to be reapplied every year to ensure the wood doesn't get damaged from being outdoors all the time. It's a little more work than contemporary chemical finishes, but we wanted to be sure our hens have the happiest, healthiest life possible.

Building Unadilla Community Farm's new chicken ark was a lot of fun for me - they encouraged me to really look into the literature surrounding chicken coops to produce something innovative and beautiful. There's a wealth of online resources out there that I found very helpful, especially forums like Backyard Chickens. I hope that Unadilla Community Farm's new chicken ark will help inspire other coop-builders as well!

- Ben



  1. Awesome coop! They look very happy in their new home.

  2. That is a great design. I like how to brought the entire coop off the ground. That will help to prevent the entire coop being flooded when it rains.