Our initial foray into small-scale urban farming quickly turned into a trailblazing adventure, an examination of what environmental stewardship and occupant satisfaction mean outside conventional frameworks, and a race to attain LEED certification.
The first LEED certified backyard chicken coop
Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) is a green building rating system developed by the U.S. Green Building Council, the driving force behind the green building industry in the U.S. and 30 other countries. While LEED isn’t the only certification program out there, it’s undoubtedly the most popular. So I got to thinking: For several years, commercial-scale facilities, apartments and homes have benefited from this evolving framework for sustainable design, construction and maintenance of buildings. But where is the LEED or LEED-equivalent rubric for smaller dwellings, such as backyard chicken coops?
On a typical non-farm property, a chicken coop or other birdie house (if you have one) is the only other continuously-occupied, multi-tenant living structure. Like any other building, coops require a reliable building envelope, ventilation system, suitable daylighting and an operational plan for cleaning and general upkeep. These and other factors contribute to indoor environmental quality, which can produce a building that’s either passably habitable or delightful and enriching to its occupants.
With the prospect of domestic fowl arriving in my own backyard, and in anticipation of a new urban homesteading movement here in the San Francisco Bay Area, I decided it was time to pilot the first LEED certified backyard chicken coop. In this short story, I look at how tiny buildings can exemplify the goals of environmental stewardship, and how they can do so in a way that, compared to their larger and more grandiose green building counterparts, proves equally important to non-human occupants. I also try to shed some light on the notion of occupant-centric construction for non-humans, in which satisfaction among the animal inhabitants is a central factor in assessing overall building performance. Although here the scale of material use and ecological impact are different, many of the metrics used to judge a tiny building’s LEED rating are surprisingly — and amusingly — similar.
The preamble, and why chicks dig vegans
The first thing you learn about chickens is that they relentlessly and indiscriminately shit all over the place. Even their water supply isn’t spared. Chickens and humans are a lot alike in this way: untreated sewage and polluted runoff are often discharged into the very waterways we use to extract freshwater for human consumption. What’s more, in the U.S. nearly 40% of our total indoor freshwater use is attributed to flushing toilets (in Canada it’s roughly 30%). Given our reputation for intentionally mixing available freshwater with bodily waste, I soon realized that these adorable shit machines, together with their rather narrow attention spans and quirky personalities, might as well be tiny versions of our human selves.
My initial enthusiasm for raising chickens had nothing to do with the promise of a stead supply of eggs. After all, I follow a vegan diet. But that’s not the case for other members of my household; they’re interested in a health-giving, hyper-local, organically-raised source of protein and essential nutrients. Collectively we found the idea alluring because of its novelty and feasibility: build a charming miniature house in the backyard, add fuzzy chicks, and keep them happy and well fed. It was also bound to be a fun construction project. But the most compelling argument for a coop, and in particular a LEED certified coop, I reckoned, would be our personal assurance in the quality of the chickens’ lives.
Meet the family: Henrietta Crooked Beak, Susie Sussex and (Chicken) Nugget. Susie is the leader of the brood, always observant and sometimes a little strong-armed. Henrietta has a grave overbite. Nugget is the gentle, philosophical one, aware of her own mortality.
Sourcing sustainable materials and local ideas
So, how exactly do you design a tiny building for non-humans with the dual goals of producing a structure that minimizes environmental impact and maximizes occupant satisfaction?
The first step involved sifting through Craigslist posts. In Fremont we found an open-air structure that had previously accommodated various birds, including pigeons. What had appeared to be a narrowly adequate, partially intact building envelope would later turn into a full-blown This Old House-style, cost-escalating construction lesson for the newbie. In other words, our newly acquired pigeon cage would effectively get deconstructed and salvaged for reusable materials.
With the initial input of recycled materials serving as a starting point for design, the next step was purchasing some virgin wood. Because the recommendations of the LEED certification process were guiding our purchasing decisions, it made sense that virgin wood used in the making of the coop ought to have been harvested from responsibly managed forest ecosystems, preferably ones on this continent. The Home Depot was supposedly a good place to find it.
As the world’s largest buyer of construction materials, The Home Depot made an early effort to accurately trace the origin — from stump to shelf, as they describe it — of every wood product sold in their stores. Today, it is actually possible to know where in the world most of the store’s wood had originated. But, as we discovered, the origin of the coop’s engineered plywood sheaths and furring strips remained elusive.
The problem with materials used in tiny buildings, or at least this tiny building, is that thinner wood products of lesser quality often are derived from lesser quality wood stocks. That is to say, like trying to find the ingredients list of a suspicious carnival hot dog or canned tuna from dolphin-rich waters, it is challenging to track the constituent pieces of a cheap engineered wood product with chemical fixatives. Since much of the lesser quality timber doesn’t carry the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) label for wood that is harvested only from sustainably-managed forests, trying to figure out the lifecycle of ultra-thin plywood, for example, from the land to manufacturing to distribution is difficult if not virtually impossible.
But there are other things to consider besides the origin of foreign materials and the distance they had traveled to the construction site. As any good urban planner would remind us, site appropriateness — how well the structure integrates architectural features, landscaping, technology, community and ideas into the local setting — factors heavily into the equation. For our backyard coop, we asked, how do the materials and the design allow its occupants to cherish the qualities of the local ecosystem and enrich the existing neighborhood culture?
Lofty questions for a tiny building, maybe. While a tiny chicken coop can only do so much to save the world, good answers still exist: The roosting deck, spanning the center of the coop, was cut from a fallen dead tree that had previously stood in the space occupied by the coop. The vibrant blue paint and white trim had been inspired by an old Victorian home just down the street, one of the oldest homes in the neighborhood. The rear protective wire and adjacent skylight were designed to let the scenery of the backyard in, providing roosting chickens with an accessible view of the backyard even while the front double-door is closed.
Don’t put all your LEED points in one basket
Despite several LEED credit-earning features accumulated thus far, the coop required more green technology to boost its rating. Afterall, we didn’t want the pioneer structure of LEED for Tiny Buildings (or, LEED for Chicken Coops) to be bested anytime soon.
A solar photovoltaic cell repurposed from a deck light and paired with two warm-glowing amber LEDs, a photocell and two rechargeable nickel-cadmium batteries contributed a renewable energy point, providing enough light to illuminate the entire coop at night. Flexible tubing and a bucket became the coop’s rainwater collection system, conveying rainwater runoff from the roof, and scoring another point. A piece of good old-fashioned polymethyl methacrylate (Plexiglas) on the south-facing portion of the roof provides exceptional daylighting, thereby pushing up the tiny building’s rating even further.
Some things were eventually value-engineered out: the cupola and weathervane; the vegetated roof; the additional windows; the egg laying compartment privacy curtain; the automatic chicken back scratcher; the pecking-controlled music player (iPod Peck®) and speaker system; the wireless chicken cam.
One of the best attributes of the coop had nothing to do with high technology: the entire structure had been assembled without the use of power tools. Only a hand saw and hammer brought the tiny building together. Here, more than our aspirations for the highest LEED certification possible, it was a matter of scale that had changed our approach to construction and, ultimately, our relationship with the building. A suite of power tools would have reduced the time it took to source, build and finish, and maybe even prompted us to consider building a bigger, fancier coop. But with the resource limitations deliberately accorded this pseudo-LEED project, material use and ecological impact were effectively capped. What had been the capacity of a single human being to complete the project within a reasonable time frame via muscle energy alone had inevitably translated into the coop’s dimensions and scope.
Applications beyond the coop
But why go to all the trouble for a tiny building? Aren’t there better, more substantive ways in which to apply sustainable building practices? Is this just a political statement that makes the skeptical types ask, “Did you get this quixotic idea from a New York Times lifestyle section, yuppie?” Doesn’t the Mayan calendar predict a 2012 apocalypse anyway? OK — maybe a little LEED building isn’t going to solve all our environmental and social problems. Nevertheless, it just so happens that there is much to learn from chicken coop designs in general that can be borrowed for non-coop applications, provided you’re looking beyond 2012.
At Unity College in Maine, four old chicken hatcheries have been adapted and remodeled to accommodate administrative and faculty offices, an art gallery and two student residence halls. This poultry farm-turned-human dwelling made sense as it preserved the agricultural heritage of the place and reused existing structures.
In September 2010, Yahoo! opened a new data center in upstate New York. Tall, narrow buildings topped with a long cupola are designed to naturally expel warm inside air and, alternately, receive cool outside air blowing in through the top. Scott Noteboom, Director of Data Center Operations at Yahoo, explains: “The building itself is an air handler… The entire building is meant to breathe…” Christina Page, Director of Climate and Energy Strategy at Yahoo, said that it was inspired by the design of chicken coops. Not surprisingly, the design is called the Yahoo Computing Coop.
On the residential front, green architect Michelle Kaufmann is quick to demonstrate her preference toward a barn design, like that of a more traditional chicken coop. Barns, she argues, are designed for function and climate, lending its occupants natural lighting, considerable air circulation, flexible spaces and uncomplicated beauty. The architectural features that contribute to the versatility and quintessential rural beauty of a barn or coop are probably among the most cherished and practical aspects of these buildings.
From left to right: south-facing skylight and outside greenery as seen from the second level; chicks hanging out on the cafeteria deck and scrutinizing neighborhood birds (“bird watching”); reinforced, sliding double-door in the front of the coop for easy cleaning access.
Is a greener building always better for building occupants?
Many of the best and simplest achievements in greener construction can be easily transferred to buildings for non-humans and, as it turns out, chicken coops. For instance, we can choose: safer paints, finishes and adhesives; superior daylighting and ventilation; triple-pane windows and formaldehyde-free insulation; and ongoing maintenance programs designed to optimize efficiency and improve indoor comfort. With these options, the implied goal is quite clear: make the indoor environment healthier and more desirable for building occupants.
Sometimes, however, design cues and sustainability objectives get misinterpreted, leaving us to wonder, ‘Why exactly are we designing a supposedly greener building in the first place?’.
Here’s an example: The Israeli Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Development launched a competition for new, greener industrial-scale chicken coop designs. Naturally, the winning design had been accorded the “eco” treatment, meaning that it looks like a solar-powered spaceship. Ventilation was an important factor in the wind tunnel tube layout, but rather than stick with a simpler design that has worked beautifully, consistently and inexpensively for generations, designers of the new concept coop opted for modern glitz that has come to typify green architecture. Coincidentally, the design was not well received by local farmers.
My contention is that the addition of advanced, standalone technology (or radically new designs) doesn’t constitute an inherently better or greener building system. In fact, there are circumstances in which such technology is harnessed merely to yield a public perception of being environmentally conscious. In terms of environmental impact, the Israeli design had been put forth with noble intentions, including that chicken coops should harness their own solar energy and process on-site waste in a closed-loop wastewater treatment system. These goals alone are deserving of approval. However, they only address a subset of the possible goals of a new and improved coop.
The Israeli coop design strategy still leaves the health and happiness of the non-human occupants out of the design picture, and perhaps that of the human workers as well, not to mention the cost of high technology. What if the solar panels, wind turbines, waste treatment plant and graceful green tendrils covering the galvanized steel facade were value-engineered out of the design? The question then is, ‘Are greener buildings always better for their occupants?’ Probably, in many cases, but not if the technology or building strategy is decoupled from an honest appraisal of occupant satisfaction — or, in the case of inarticulate chickens, other measures of things which we hope correlate with happiness in creatures other than ourselves.
Most recently, factory farms have been preparing to adopt new mandatory regulations that will change the way in which chickens and other animals eke out a living in factory farms. The European Union will require farms to provide better living quarters for poultry starting in 2012, requiring an upgrade of most factory farm coops. California has a similar statute in the pipeline. In 2008, California voters passed Proposition 2, prohibiting the confinement of farm animals in a manner that does not allow them to turn around freely, lie down, stand up and fully extend their limbs. That law comes into effect around 2015.
At the end of the day, the Israeli concept coop may well have been a praiseworthy contest in which sustainable designs were solicited from smart, forward-looking people, rather than a disingenuous public relations opportunity as I have characterized it. And the imminent factory farm regulations, rather than amounting to a relatively minor gesture to our animal friends, might in fact go a long way toward dramatically improving their farm animal livelihoods.
That said, while greening a new or existing structure has its merits, greener construction on its own, and in particular high-technology greener construction, with all its inconsistent objectives, is only one of several necessary ways in which to push forward a more equitable and responsible building ethic for accommodating the needs of building occupants.
The chickens have a fondness for food scraps and surplus from the garden. Overly ripened tomatoes, surplus plums, withering chard, watermelon rinds, strawberries and, of course, apples. Apples seem to be the crack cocaine of leftovers. Above, Susie at one year old.
Calculating the coop’s payback
Payback is always a popular topic when talking about greener buildings because it’s important to have energy- and water-efficient technologies and building strategies save money in the long run, and improve productivity for those living and working on the inside. Not everything is easily measured or measurable, though.
To calculate our coop’s financial payback I’ll assume that we want the following to provide a return on investment:
- The eggs themselves, considering the cost of the eggs had we otherwise purchased them;
- Fertilizer that I expect to receive in the form of chicken droppings; and
- The happiness of the chickens.
I’ll also assume that local organic eggs cost $5 per dozen; that the chicken coop, feeders and fence (plus the chicks themselves) cost approximately $400; that the feed (other than our table scraps) costs approximately $15 per month; and that the chickens are going to be happier than most chickens. At a conservative 250 eggs per chicken per year, our three chickens should pop out a little over $300 in eggs per year. They’ll also poop out about $20 in collectible fertilizer per year. So, in three years we get our mortgage on the coop paid off and the chickens can retire in the backyard.
It will take a long time and tedious, probably pointless analysis to quantify whether some of the greener building strategies will have paid off. (To what extent does extended nighttime lighting from the solar-powered light increase egg production in the winter? How does collected rainwater impact our water bill over the years, if at all?) Decisions that have rather intangible or immeasurable results — indoor comfort and livability, for example — will be impossible to assess. We have to hope that these design decisions will pay off even if we cannot know their effects.
From left to right: Susie and Nugget at several weeks old basking in early evening sunlight on the perch; the coop’s lighting source, a repurposed solar-powered deck light, where it shines through the Plexiglas skylight at night; the coop’s illustrious rainwater collection system.
The egg-citing conclusion
The first LEED certified backyard chicken coop was no prodigious feat of engineering or design talent. Anybody could build a chicken coop, with a little help. And after a more thorough search for recycled materials, it is conceivable that you could do it at little or no material cost as well. Considering that there were no power tools involved, it was a surprisingly doable albeit occasionally tiring project.
Since this wasn’t a legitimate LEED certification project, I didn’t spend a lot of time discussing the particulars of the coop’s professed LEED Silver rating. There are many things wrong with applying the current LEED framework to tiny buildings. For example, all LEED projects must be designed for and constructed on a permanent location, and cannot consist of mobile structures or buildings that are designed to move at any point in their lifetime. Even worse, LEED projects must include a minimum of 1,000 square feet of gross floor area (our coop is only 20 square feet across both floors). Nevertheless, a full and honest (well, uh, partially honest) LEED credit inventory had been carried out, which you can download here. DB
Clockwise: The roof slats go on first, attached at three points. Next, the roofing substrate is seamlessly inlaid with the skylight. Thick black plastic and shingles are reused to keep the coop watertight. Finally, the front and rear doors are hinged and the detachable staircase is added.
Novella Carpenter, a fellow Oakland resident, helped kick-start preparations for the coop as we read her affectionate portrait of backyard self-sufficiency in the book Farm City. Novella raised bees, bunnies, turkeys and pigs, too. Visit her blog here.
BackyardChickens.com, a comprehensive resource for novices and chicken enthusiasts, this site has an extensive gallery of interesting coop designs and useful information on different breeds, diseases and predators.
If you’re interested in going through the rigors of pseudo-LEED certification for a tiny building of your own, visit USGBC’s LEED for New Construction page for all of the latest downloads, including rating system guides and project checklists.
For those of you who live in Oakland, City Slicker Farms is a fantastic organization that improves access to healthy, fresh, local food in West Oakland, where there are 50+ liquor stores but not a single grocery store for its 30,000 inhabitants. They’ve also got chickens.
Nugget finds a dry patch of ground under the pole beans where she can take a dust bath. She’s also molting, hence the scattered feathers.
Ongoing updates from the coop
Well, it seems that our coop has provoked the ire of the U.S. Green Building Council — or at least that’s what I had thought the first time I read a convincing cease-and-desist order sent to me from Washington, D.C. lawyers on behalf of Rick Fedrizzi, President & CEO of USGBC.
Ends up it was only an April Fools hoax, but a really well executed one that had me feeling pangs of fear as well as elation at having garnered the attention of the head honcho. I will admit that I had gone so far as to consider my escape to a country without a Green Building Council in those fleeting moments of stunned belief while reading the letter. Well played, Nick, Andrew and other schemers!
Chicken tractor annex provides sunny accommodations
For the past several months we’ve either had to let the chickens run amok through the backyard, tearing up the garden and making us run in circles trying to catch them at night, or hang out in a round, makeshift chicken wire fence.
Now we’re happy to finally have a proper chicken tractor. The tractor has the benefit of providing extra protection from neighborhood animal intruders, plus it’s mobile and decidedly less janky than a ring of wire. The wood base and door are FSC-certified. The little wheels are repurposed training wheels obtained from Urban Ore in Berkeley. The PVC pipe hoops are, astonishingly, endorsed by the U.S. Green Building Council by way of the vinyl industry’s membership with USGBC — it says so on the PVC itself. I guess if a gasoline-powered alarm clock can qualify for the Energy Star label, then surely polyvinyl chloride can secure the blessings of the Council.