House Works: How to build a better chicken coop

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When it comes to food, people eventually make their way back to basics. Heritage vegetables, free-range meats, artisanal cheeses — they’re all examples of what I mean.


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No matter how modern and convenient our food system has become, it has a hard time delivering a close enough connection to the land for many of us. This dynamic is probably why backyard chicken husbandry is on the rise and, of course, this means an interest in backyard chicken houses of the kind I want to show you here.

We’ve kept chickens at our island home since 2002, and there’s one housing idea that we keep coming back to: modularity. A handful of smaller, semi-portable coops is better than one large, permanently anchored house.

This is especially true when you’re dealing with a city or suburban backyard. Permanent coops don’t make much sense in places like these, yet the serious drawbacks aren’t obvious until it’s too late. That’s why people keep building the wrong kind of chicken house, only to have to stick to it because they’ve invested so much in the structure.


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Permanent chicken houses are almost always troublesome and expensive to build. Lack of flexibility means they offer no chance to reduce or expand flock size.

Keeping chickens in one place all the time will turn that area of ​​your lawn into a dusty, vegetation-free wasteland. Permanent coops are also difficult to heat with winter sun — an issue that really matters here in Canada.

So what’s the solution? Something I designed call a modular coop “community”. One or more smaller, semi-portable backyard chicken barns that can be mixed and matched in different ways. Raise some day-old chicks in one, and use another as a production house for adult birds. Add a third house if you want to separate some birds.

The modular coops are solid and surprisingly warm in winter because of the clear, solar roof, yet easily ventilated in summer. Simple to build, this design can be moved to new locations when needed. Individual modules can be pulled out of production for a time to break pest cycles, and they’re easy to clean without standing in poop.


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The same Jacob Maxwell — now 15 — builds the modular chicken coop he helped design.
The same Jacob Maxwell — now 15 — builds the modular chicken coop he helped design. Photo by Steve Maxwell

My coop design sits on legs that raise the structure off the ground, keeping the wood of the coop well and truly dry and away from the soil. Nothing can rot because of soil contact, as it often does with other coops.

Raising the height of a chicken house like this also makes it perfect for winter use in areas that get snow. Although this design looks fancy, it’s really only a 5/8-inch plywood box. Nothing this substantial could be easier to build.

The opportunity to collect eggs without opening the chicken door is another advantage of the hinged roof. Simply swivel the top upwards, reach down into whatever nesting box you’re using, then retrieve the eggs. You can also replenish feed and water this way, too.

Although hens can get in an out of a very small door, having a large door makes it easier to move feed and water in from the side if you want, and move out manure when it’s time to clean the houses.


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In my design, nearly one whole side swings outwards, with no lip above the floor level. Manure and bedding is easy to scrape out.

This modular coop is ideal for keeping backyard chickens.  It's self-heating in winter, easily ventilated in summer and portable.
This modular coop is ideal for keeping backyard chickens. It’s self-heating in winter, easily ventilated in summer and portable. Photo by Len Churchill

There are more details here than I have space for, but you can download free plans for my chicken barn at

As practical as it is to keep backyard chickens, the real attraction is also because these birds are great fun to watch. In a world with too many screens in front of us, it’s refreshing to be entertained by something non-digital for a change. Try it and you’ll understand what they mean by “chicken TV”.

Steve Maxwell blends digital and outdoor rural life with his family on Manitoulin Island. Visit him at to learn and be entertained.




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