Coop materials can vary tremendously, depending on the flock’s size, location, the flock owner’s preferences, design requirements, and what materials are available or cost effective. While we get into the actual design features on other pages, I wanted to list some materials here which either have proven to be good candidates, or not, when used in coops. I also wanted to provide some guidance for those materials if they are the best materials on hand, even if they are less than ideal.
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Dimensional lumber: This is by far the most commonly used structural material in coop construction, regardless of size. It is usually used for the structural members of a building, but not for the actual “skin” or covering. For most locations in the USA, it’s relatively cheap, it’s predictable, it’s easy to work with, it’s relatively durable and it’s relatively resistant to decay. It can be easily worked by hand or small power tools, it can be joined by a variety of materials such as nails, screws, hand-worked joints, and/or metal joiners. It can be painted, scrubbed, cleaned, recycled and used again. The main concern with dimensional lumber is to keep it clean and dry. If it gets wet too often, it can and will start to deteriorate. If it gets repeatedly dirty, it will stain and can absorb contaminants.
Pressure-treated lumber: This type of lumber has all the advantages of the above, yet has been chemically treated to resist damage and rot from repeated exposure to moisture. It would seem to be a very good candidate for coops for that very reason. However, it has two strong drawbacks. First, it is much more expensive than similarly-sized lumber. That by itself is not necessarily a drawback, since the lumber will last longer than non-treated lumber. However, most dimensionally treated lumber is quite toxic either when ingested, or via leachate if it is allowed to get wet. While birds won’t peck at the lumber, they will readily drink from any puddles of water that form near the building. Additionally, that leachate can contaminate the ground the birds live on, scratch in and take dust-baths in. Over time, the toxins could end up in the meat and/or in the eggs. So if pressure-treated lumber is to be used, ensure that it is protected from moisture such that leachate cannot form.
Composite building materials: This material shares all the advantages of dimensional and pressure-treated lumber, but avoids the drawback of being toxic. It is wonderful material to work with and will probably last far longer than the chicken coop itself. The only drawback is cost. If flock owners and/or coop builders have access to this material at a low cost, for instance by using scraps left over from various deck-building projects, this can be an outstanding option. If a coop builder has limited access to this material, use it where water damage is most likely – at the bottom of buildings, around windows and door openings, and any other exposed or potentially exposed surface.
Exterior grade plywood: Plywood is very common siding material for outbuildings, and for good reason. It provides excellent, cost-effective structural rigidity, it is easy to work, it is readily available in most parts of the USA, and it provides an excellent surface for weather-proof siding or painting. While exterior-grade plywood is more weather-resistant than regular plywood, it should be protected from moisture damage because it can be damaged by repeated exposure. Once damaged, it will never have the same structural strength or durability it once had. But if it is covered, painted or otherwise protected, it will serve well for many years.
Interior grade plywood, particleboard, and OSB: These materials have the advantage of being inexpensive and relatively lightweight. But they should only be used within a coop and for those purposes which have minimal or no risk of exposure to moisture of any kind. It can be used for interior and/or lightweight structural reinforcement. Allowing any of these materials to get wet will very quickly result in rapid deterioration. Also note that these materials offer very poor resistance to gnawing and/or digging animals, either predators or vermin who are trying to get into the coop.
Pallets: These might seem an odd material for construction purposes. However, they are often available at little or no cost, and they definitely provide some interesting structural options. Enough people have used them for small to medium sized coops that I wanted to mention them here. They can be joined together to form extremely rugged walls, and can also be used for roofing or flooring with some creative engineering. The main drawback of using pallets is that they are available in only limited sizes, which limits the options for the building size. Stacking them on top of each other gets complicated such that wall height is often limited either by cost or logistics. Furthermore, unless all the pallets come from a single source, different pallet manufacturers use slightly different pallet sizes so they don’t always match up with each other. That can complicate designs even further. The space between the top and bottom slats needs to be filled or screened off in some way to keep birds from getting stuck in that space, and/or bedding and manure from building up inside. Those drawbacks and complications aside, pallets have been used successfully for some very nice chicken coops. One further note – if pallets are readily available but are inconvenient to use as-is, they can also be taken apart and the dimensional lumber used for a different design. The wood used for pallet construction is often very high quality, without knots or structural blemishes. The pieces are small but they can definitely be recombined as structural pieces of a stout building.
Corrugated tin: This is a traditional roofing material for chicken coops, but is not nearly as common now as it used to be. That is partly because other materials are now much cheaper, and because corrugated tin is not as commonly available in many locations. If sheets of corrugated tin are readily available, they can definitely be used as roofing or siding with very good results. It is waterproof, decay resistant, rodent-proof, strong and lightweight. However, it can rust if the painted or galvanized coating is allowed to wear away. Additionally, the exposed edges can be very sharp, and can easily cut skin or cause injury if within reach of people or creatures. It can get very hot in sunny climates, which can radiate into living areas below, and it is amazingly loud in hailstorms or even in heavy rain. If used for roofing in sunny climates, some insulation or shielding should be provided to ensure the building does not become overheated. Some creatures will not use the building during heavy rain or hail because of the noise.
Asbestos roofing: Conventional roofing tabs, commonly known as asbestos tiles or asbestos sheets, are easy to work with, readily available, lightweight, durable and attractive. Their only drawback is cost. If a flock owner wants or needs a chicken coop to match the décor of their house, or at least meet conventional construction codes (which is sometimes mandated by local regulations), this is often the roofing material of choice. The only drawback is cost. However, the durability alone helps offset that cost greatly when considering the lifespan of a chicken coop. There are definitely cheaper roofing options, but few which are as cost-effective for long-term roofing for any permanent building.
Tarred roofing/siding: Like corrugated tin, this roofing option is not nearly as common as it used to be. Pre-tarred sheets or rolls are still available at some home improvement centers, and will offer short-term protection from mild to moderate weather conditions. As such it can be used for stop-gap shelter needs. Many other construction materials are a better choice as long-term roofing or siding, even if this material is available at no cost. It will eventually succumb to weathering even in mild conditions. Once it starts to tear and flap in the wind, near-constant maintenance and/or replacement will be required. That being said, it can be used to good effect as a liner between moisture-prone interior building materials, and tougher siding materials. Most buildings won’t need such redundancy since exterior siding will itself protect interior materials. But if tarred materials are combined with other recycled, scrounged or found materials, they can be combined to good use for either siding or roofing.
EMT and chainlink fencing poles: These materials might not seem an obvious building material, but they are being used in some interesting ways. Several companies are now offering pole-bending tools to turn the straight poles into hoops for use in a hoophouse or greenhouse. Alternately, other companies offer slip-fit joints which allow the poles to be assembled together just like adult-sized erector sets. EMT poles are often readily available at home improvement centers, at costs which are comparable to dimensional wood. The galvanized metal can be worked relatively easily with hand tools or small-scale power tools, and can be assembled in a variety of ways. The major drawback for EMT poles is that they are generally either 10’ or occasionally 20’ in length, which really limits the options for building size. They can be cut down to smaller lengths, but the cost associated with these buildings come from the number of joints to be used. So cutting them down to multiple pieces, results in a much more expensive building. One option to keep in mind is that in some areas, chainlink fencing poles are much cheaper than EMT poles of the same size. That discrepancy has never made sense to me, but it can make the difference between a building that costs too much and one that comes in under budget.
PVC rods: PVC rods offer many of the same options, and drawbacks, as EMT poles, but with a few interesting differences. First, they are generally cheaper than either EMT poles or chainlink fencing poles. That’s the good news. The bummer news is that the white poles are not rated for UV exposure and deteriorate very quickly when used outside. Even when gray UV-stabilized poles are used, some forms of film off-gas a chemical that can degrade many plastic films. Since most PVC pole applications are as hoop houses or greenhouses, that film degradation issue can be a problem. Some get around this issue by using tarps instead of film, but tarp quality varies a great deal and some tarps break down very quickly, sometimes within a single season. Bottom line, PVC poles can provide good short-term field shelters but must be very carefully planned for longer-term buildings.
Concrete and cinder blocks: Most folks won’t go through the hassle, effort and/or cost of building with concrete. Yet for those who have access to an existing concrete pad and/or cinder block building, either material can offer some appealing advantages for flock housing. Concrete’s main advantage is that it is virtually vermin-proof, predator-proof, extremely weather- and moisture-resistant, and darn near eternal. Generally speaking, if a concrete pad or cinder block building is available for use and in good repair, it can save flock owners a lot of hassle even if not quite the right size or location. In that instance, installing a coop on top of the pad, or converting a cinder block building to being used as a coop, can result in a very durable shelter with dramatically reduced additional construction required. The disadvantages are that once put somewhere, a concrete pad or building certainly isn’t going anywhere, so the location must be considered. And if the ground shifts under it, cracks can develop anywhere in the foundation or walls. If the cracks are minimal, they can be patched. If they are substantial, they may be more hassle to repair than would be practical. Bottom line, concrete is rarely cost-effective as new construction unless vermin and predator protection is a high priority, and/or if the materials and/or labor can be provided very inexpensively.
Natural Materials (branches, bamboo, stone, etc): These materials have of course long been used to build all sorts of animal enclosures and shelters. In parts of the world where materials are abundant and labor is cheap, they can still be used to great effect. They are not particularly practical, however, if materials cost anything to acquire, and/or if labor has any cost associated with it. In other words, if a large family is homesteading in an area with a lot of natural materials, enough hands for the task can make quick work of the project. But if these materials need to be bought in and assembled by one or two people whose time is limited, then other construction methods are much, much more practical. If a person or family wants to go this route, there are a lot of books, websites and journals about how to use natural materials for a variety of building purposes.
Hoophouses and Greenhouses: While this approach may seem odd, hoop houses and greenhouses are actually quite well suited to provide good to excellent flock housing. Hoop houses and greenhouses can be sized for any given flock size. The airy interior combined with tough film covering can provide years of very good, cost-effective housing. The main drawbacks to this approach are that the film offers absolutely no protection from either vermin or predators, and ventilation can be a problem during hot sunny weather. For the former issue, a sturdy foundation of concrete, concrete blocks, or heavy rims and plywood pony walls should be considered. Those materials will offer a great deal of protection against predators or vermin digging under or chewing through the film. Ventilation can be helped by the use of powerful fans at either end. Some hoop house or greenhouse designs allow for raising the sides, which can dramatically help ventilation. This option works well if the building is enclosed within a yard surrounded by a protective fence, so that the birds will stay contained and/or predators and vermin can’t gain entry.
Car Shelters and Canopies: This might sound like an oddball option, but many folks have used off-the-shelf car shelters and canopies as poultry shelters. Including us. These are fairly good three-season shelters for mild to moderate climates, when protected from strong winds and heavy snow loads. However, winds over approximately 20mph and snow loads more than 1" accumulation, can cause the structure to collapse, blow away or both. These make outstanding field shelters for pastured operations, if they are well anchored. If they are intended to be used all year, provide at least two walls for a windblock, anchor it well, and be ready to shovel the roof off if snowfall goes beyond 1" accumulation.
Chicken wire: Oddly enough, chicken wire is not a good choice for chickens. This fencing material might have been a decent low-cost choice once upon a time, but today’s chicken wire is relatively flimsy and often poorly made. Due to the way it’s assembled, it can be prone to unraveling. Some brands are better than others in this regard, but I have worked with brand new chicken wire which unraveled as soon as I put even slight pressure on the fabric. It would have offered zero protection from vermin, predators, or birds determined to escape. That was the last time I paid money on that particular product. Even if stouter or more carefully constructed wire can be found, it is made from such thin gauge wire that it rusts very quickly. Almost any form of fencing is better, even for the short term, than chicken wire.
Chain link: Where chicken wire is too flimsy, chain link is often too heavy and expensive for practical use. That being said, one very good way to use chain link with birds, is to use the readily-available dog runs as poultry yards. While these dog runs can be pricy when purchased new, used kits are sometimes available at very low cost. That cost becomes very competitive with other fencing options. These kits do not last long on the used market because they are so handy for a variety of purposes. Used rolls of chain link also sometimes come up available on the used market, at substantial savings over new. So if a flock owner knows they want to use this material, keep an eye out for chain link dog runs and/or fabric rolls in places like Craigslist, eBay, and the local thrifty bargain classifieds. If it can be sourced inexpensively, chain link makes a very good fencing material for poultry. The one additional drawback is that while very predator-proof, chain link offers no resistance whatsoever to rodents and other vermin. So poultry feed and nest boxes will still need protection from vermin.
Woven or Welded wire field fence: Both of these materials can be used very well as poultry yard fencing. Woven fencing is more durable, but welded fencing is much, much cheaper. Both are plenty strong enough to contain birds, although some birds learn to slip through the woven fencing openings if they are much larger than 2” by 4”. Welded field fence typically has the 2” by 4” openings and thus is bird-proof, but it will not take repeated pressures from predators before breaking. Additionally, vermin can slip through the 2” by 4” openings with ease. So as with the chain link, additional measures will be needed to protect birds from vermin.
Electrified Bird Netting: This relatively new form of fencing, available from online retailers such as Premier1Supplies, is a valuable new option for either stationary or pastured poultry operations. The netting is functionally like woven or welded field fence, but it is imminently more portable. In fact it is intended to be moved frequently, and thus allows for very carefully-allocated grazing allotments. The main disadvantage is cost: the fencing itself is not too expensive but the energizer needed to power it often can be. It's a rare day when either this fencing or the energizers are available used. Secondly, it is an absolute bear to work with if grass starts to grow through it. Do whatever it takes to keep that from happening. Conveniently, the more often it's moved, the less likely that is to occur. Third, and this is a bizarre issue, waterfowl apparently love to eat the little plastic widgets that form the corners between horizontal and vertical strings. If the fence is energized, this isn't generally a problem because they'll quickly get shocked and learn to leave the fence alone. But if the fence is either off, or fouled with grass, those waterfowl will eat the thing to pieces within a few days if given the chance. The fence is much too expensive to allow that to happen. Watch for it if waterfowl are in with the poultry. Finally, lightweight birds can and do fly over the fence, so it is best used with the heavier breeds and/or with broilers.
The above evaluations are the best that we have at the moment. As we continue working with various materials, we'll add to and update the above as needed. If folks have additional information, feel free to send us that information and we'll add it to the above.