Chicken Coop III: My Frank Lloyd Wright Moment

When I first came here, this was all swamp. Everyone said I was daft to build a castle on a swamp, but I built in all the same, just to show them. It sank into the swamp. So I built a second one. That sank into the swamp. So I built a third. That burned down, fell over, then sank into the swamp. But the fourth one stayed up. And that’s what you’re going to get, Lad, the strongest castle in all of England.

-King of Swamp Castle, Monty Python and the Holy Grain

We have chickens. Hens, never roosters. They provide eggs, but also a kind of spiritual sense of wellness. You walk out and look at these weird feathered lizards, who so mercilessly whallop one another while meanwhile regard the world with such bland incomprehension, and you cannot help but think:  Hey, it could be worse; at least I’m not a chicken!

At our old house, we built a coop which was near the house. The coop had a small mesh-enclosed area, but was attached to a large open run. There were a few problems:

  1. Chickens, even hens, can be loud. There was one chicken named Buffy (her breed was Buff Orpington; and also, she was a bruiser like the vampire slayer) who was particularly obnoxious.
  2. Raccoons are chicken-killing monsters. If we forgot to close the coop at night, or if a chicken decided to roost outside instead of going in, all hell could break loose at 3am.
  3. Somehow, chickens would somehow find their way into the yard and cause trouble. They would eat the strawberries. Or once, a chicken roosted on the tap handle for a keg of beer, dumping its contents everywhere.

After several years of fortification, experimentation, and frustration, we gave up on the old coop and built a new coop. This structure was shaped like simple shed; 7′ x 9′. I can’t find the pictures right now, but suffice to say it was the Fort Knox of chickens. The only real nod to whimsy and aesthetics was that we installed a nice chandelier which was solar powered.

When we moved, there was no way the coop was coming with us. So it was time to build yet another coop! This time, I wanted a fun structure which could fit into an odd corner of the yard:

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I wanted something which could wrap around the pine, in a vaguely trapezoid shape. For bonus points, I’d incorporate a stained glass window we had found on the street several years ago.

I started by placing some posts in the corners, and attaching them with level cross-lumber.

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Then I put down plywood. The right area would be the box for laying eggs; you want this to be dark and protected so the chickens think it’s a good spot.

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From there, I started framing the structure. There would be one big swing-out door in the front for cleaning the coop, and a smaller door on the egg box for easy collection. The framing itself was done organically, simply attaching pieces of lumber as they seemed fitting.

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Once the framing was in place, I started attaching cedar boards to the sides.

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I got a pile of cedar shingles and tossed them on top. Certainly not a pretty job, with so many angles, but hopefully it came across as whimsical…?

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The last step was the enclose the entire area in 1/4″ mesh to keep raccoons out!

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The Ladies quickly set up residence and got to work laying eggs!

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Pagoda (A Greenhouse Reimagined)

The cob greenhouse was great; everyone loved the little hut in our yard. But it had two serious problems:

  1. No matter how many windows were opened, it was too hot in the summer. Cob has tremendous thermal mass. Plants would cook in there; so we mostly used it for spring starts and storage.
  2. It took up a lot of room in the yard, which cut down on space to gather with friends.

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One evening, two or three years after building the greenhouse, I was suddenly struck with a vision of how to re-imagine the greenhouse as a community gathering space.The crux of my plan was to re-use as much of the existing materials and brick footprint as possible, but to turn it into a large horseshoe-shaped, covered bench. I struggled to explain to my wife what I was thinking; and to her great credit, she said “I’m not really sure what you’re talking about, but just do it.”

I needed a bit of extra lumber to frame the new structure – in particular, 14-foot 2×6 cross-beams, and 4×4 posts. The rest of the wood was salvaged.

Thus supplied, I began the process of deconstructing the cob greenhouse.

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Halfway through, I took a break to dig postholes at the outside-corners. I cut and positioned the 4×4 posts, such that the northern posts were 8′ tall and the southern posts were 6.5′ tall (from ground level). I temporarily screwed cross-beams on to ensure the correct sizing and square form.

DSC00645 DSC00644 From there, it was a matter of removing the rest of the cob (and strawbales) to a level about 18″ above ground level, and finalizing the framing. My plan was to keep cob as the interior foundation, such that it would still be covered and protected from rain.

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Lumber was attached the 4×4 posts with hefty lag screws. I then framed the interior parts that would become the 24″-wide benches with 2x4s, embedded in cob. The cob was easy to re-shape; just add a bit of water and squish into the new form!

From there, a simple matter of adding the roof, which came from the original greenhousDSC00652Almost done! I just needed to cut 3/4″ plywood to make the benches.

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And then, it was just a matter of finishing touches; adding slate tiles to the floor (over the gravel)…

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…caulking cracks, giving the wood many coats of oil-based polyurethane, and then buying some cushions (which were promptly claimed by the cat).

IMG_2611The pagoda is a great hit for parties – we fit about 14 people at one point. We eventually even added clear plastic walls, ran power out there, and had a projector for watching movies. Party central!

Cob Greenhouse

Cob is magical. 

Dirt plus straw plus water hardens into a mass which can bear significant load, and lasts for years – provided you keep it dry. 

I was first exposed to Cob when I was spending half a year at Pendle Hill, a Quaker retreat center in Pennsylvania. I had taken a bit of time off from college to regroup, find my spiritual center, and awaken my spirituality. As it turns out, I’m an atheist with little patience for sitting around; the self-discoveries of youth can be equal parts profound and confounding. In search of things to keep my mind off my mind, I stumbled upon a nascent project to build a greenhouse out of sustainable and local materials, including trees from the property, large stones, and the aforementioned cob.  The trees were stripped of bark, and sealed with linseed oil (which, as it turns out, isn’t sufficient; they eventually fell victim to termites). The stones were horribly heavy (surprise!) and took amazingly long to assemble into a workable foundation. But cob – oh cob! – was a great discovery. 

To make cob, we did the following:

  • Spread a tarp on the ground, ideally in a slight depression
  • Shovel a few scoops of dirt onto the tarp
  • Throw a few handfuls of straw onto the dirt
  • Add water (start with a bit, add a bit more during the next step)
  • Step and step and step on the mess until the straw is well-mixed in, and it has the consistency of jelly
  • Scootch the tarp over to the area you’re working on
  • Lay out a layer of cob; no more than 1″ thick, and at least 12-18″ wide
  • Push your finger into the wet cob every few inches to leave holes for the next layer to lock into (think: Lego bricks)
  • Wait for the cob to dry (1-3 days, depending on the weather) before applying the next layer. If it rains, be sure to cover your cob!

It’s slow, steady, muddy work. But slowly, walls emerge. Not the perfectly flat grid-walls of modern times; these are curvy, organic, emergent forms.  Surprisingly, cob hardens to an almost concrete-like form; sure, you can rub dirt off the walls, but it’s resilient and solid.

Years later, we had a house. And a boring lawn. But no greenhouse.

It was time to build a cob greenhouse of our own. 


I started my measuring out a 9′ by 14′ area. 

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I took a photo, and (crudely) used Google SketchUp to make a 3-D rough model of my vision. 

  • Brick foundation, from 3″ (one bricks) below ground level to 12″ above ground level
  • Single sloped roof, from about 2 feet above the ground on the south wall to 7 feet above ground on the north (biggest) wall. The roof is made from clear plastic. 
  • There would be a door on the north wall. This also requires less cob.
  • We would insert bottles into the cob to provide light, color, and take up a bit of room for less cob-work
  • Include windows on the East and West walls (maybe the North Wall too). 

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We were ready to dig out the foundation! This would both put the walls a bit underground, but – as it turns out, more importantly! – gave us a few mounds of dirt to turn into cob. 

We had no idea what we were in for. 

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Digging is easy. 

Bricks suck.

I mean, they look great. But even the smallest wall has a TON of bricks. And while I could’ve started with new bricks, I wanted to save money and have nice-looking, worn, interesting bricks. So I started bargain-hunting on Craigslist for bricks, hauling load after load to the house. All things told, I certainly didn’t save money compared to just ordering a delivery of new bricks – and it took a lot of time and sore muscles. But finally, we had enough bricks. 

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We laid the first layer of bricks out, and pounded rebar in-between, so it would stick up high into the wall. From there, we mortared layer after layer of brick to make a foundation, leaving an opening for the door. 

Sadly, I have hardly any photos of the building process. 

I had completely underestimated just how much dirt we would need; we quickly emptied our yard of its hills, and introduced new depressions. Towards the end, we became perhaps overzealous in our use of recycling materials for construction purposes, in order to take up room. Several hated hawtorne tree stumps made their way into the building, too. 

From the nearby, wonderful re-purposer of materials, Re-Store, I was able to get recycled lumber, and a door. Lisa rescued a stained glass mirror from the trash which was also incorporated. 

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We put on the finishing touches, and attached the roof plastic. 

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And then… we were done! Not too far from the original mockup, am I right?

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Cob also has tremendous thermal mass. As we learned, the greenhouse would get murderously hot in the summer under almost kind of sun. I installed an automatic vent which would lift a big section of the roof when it got hot; the vent was almost always open. (Automatic vents are neat, by the way; a cylinder of stuff (wax?) expands under heat, and pushes open a window just based on the pressure in the cylinder). Even so, it was too warm; the greenhouse became useful for extending the growing season in the spring through late in the fall by moving plants in-and-out.  

Garden Boxes

My old garden boxes were falling apart; they’d been made from 3/4″ cedar boards that were woefully unable to withstand the abuses of the elements.

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The size and location of the old boxes was good, though. There were three 4′ x 4′ boxes, and one 4′ by 8′ box (really, two sub-boxes). 4′ wide is a good size; you can bend over to weed and reach plants easily, and also lumber tends to come in 4′ increments. I already had pretty good, loose soil in place.

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Also, it had worked well having a built-in trellis for climbing plants like peas and beans. These were positioned on the southwest edge of the boxes so that, in summer when they were covered in a wall of greenery, they wouldn’t shade out the rest of the box.

The last thing that had worked decently well was the strip of copper tape around the perimeter of the box. Slugs and snails don’t like to touch copper. However, the tape had frayed at parts; and as the boards separated, slugs were now able to creep between the cracks in the boards.

Fortunately, removing the old boxes was easy because the wood was in such terrible condition.

The dog approves of removing the old garden boxes

The dog approves of removing the old garden boxes

My plan was to replace the old boxes in-place with new boxes constructed out of sturdier 2×12 lumber; and with sturdier 4×4 posts in the northwest side for a new trellis. I’d use lag screws to stitch things together (bolts would have been stronger and preferable, but would have taken a bit more effort).

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I would combine 4′ lengths of 2×12 boards such that, for each board, one end would cap another board; and the other end would be capped. This gives a square shape that’s the size of a 4′ board plus the the width of a 2×12 (because 2x12s are actually 1 3/4″ wide, the total width is 49 3/4″).

In terms of lumber, I decided to use pressure treated fir. Cedar, which is naturally rot-resistant and good-looking, would have been preferable; but it’s significantly more expensive. Pressure-treating helps prevent rot; while I had some reservations about the chemicals used, the lumber yard I use (Dunn lumber) advertises that these boards are safe for people, pets, and plants.

I decided it would be most economical to buy 8′ lengths of 2×12, and cut them in half to give two 4′ lengths. (Also, note that pressure treated lumber is quite heavy; 12′ would have worked too, but is an awkward size and mass to maneuver).

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8′ 2×12 lumber, on a wet day

Measure to cut boards in half, to 4' lengths

Measure to cut boards in half, to 4′ lengths

Use a skill saw to cut boards in half

Use a skill saw to cut boards in half

Because the pressure treated chemicals are only on the outside the wood, when you cut pressure treated lumber, you should coat the end of the cut with chemicals to preserve the wood. Those chemicals are not to be trusted, and so I would have to be careful to have the cut ends pointing out, away from my garden.

Freshly cut ends expose untreated lumber

Freshly cut ends expose untreated lumber

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Brushing wood preservative onto cut ends. Beware these chemicals!

Brushing wood preservative onto cut ends. Beware these chemicals!

Now I had a big pile of 4′ lengths of 2×12 boards, each with one cut end which had been treated with wood preservative. After it had dried, it was time to assemble them into boxes. First, I combined pairs into “L”s, using two 3 1/2 zinc lag screws and zinc washers at for each pair of boards.

I used a power drill to bore holes, then a wrench to screw in the law screws.

I used a power drill to bore holes, then a wrench to screw in the law screws.

Soon, I had many L-shaped boards.

Soon, I had many L-shaped boards. The Helpful Dog approves.

These L-shaped boards were then positioned around the garden beds, and combined to make squares. On the northwest side, I also bolted in two 6′ tall 4×4 vertical posts.

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The last step was to finish the trellis portion, so the plants could have something to climb onto. For this, I was going to fit sections of 6″ mesh between the vertical 4×4 poles. 
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I cut the mesh with a bolt cutter. I wanted to squeeze the mesh into holes cut into the 4x4s, so the mesh was cut to be a bit wider than 4′. I drilled holes in the 4×4 posts which were 6″ apart, and jammed the mesh in. This turned out to be a pretty awkward project; you want to wear gloves, it’s easy to get poked!mesh-2At last, the project was done! I put horizontal wooden 2x4s (cedar) at the top of the trellis. As a finish touch, I slid glass caps on the top of the 4x4s to add a touch of flair, and also to prevent water from soaking into the top of the lumber.

Done at last!

Done at last!

Fast forward a few months, and you can see that the garden is booming!

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