When architect Michael Viveiros, AIA, built a house for his family 10 years ago, he added a second house, next to the garden, for his Rhode Island Reds. The chickens probably were the first ever to live in a house recognized by the American Institute of Architects (AIA), as it won a People’s Choice Award from AIA Rhode Island. The property has since sold, and Viveiros is designing another coop to complement his new house. This one will be two stories tall and built into a hillside, with a garden shed upstairs.
“I like playing with forms typical of farm buildings, and things that are simple and handmade,” says Viveiros, a principal at Durkee, Brown, Viveiros & Werenfels Architects in Providence, R.I. “We deal so much with technology that when it comes to relaxing, I like things at the opposite end of that spectrum.”
The appeal of hand work, and a push-back from the chain-store lifestyle, may help explain the current surge in backyard agriculture. Over the past few years, homeowners of all stripes—rural, urban, suburban—have begun raising chickens, growing blueberries, and keeping bees for honey. Many are inspired by Michael Pollan’s book, The Omnivore’s Dilemma, an exposé of the commercial food chain, and by Barbara Kingsolver, whose best-selling memoir, Animal, Vegetable, Miracle, chronicled her family’s yearlong effort to live off the food they raised in their backyard. New Urbanist Andrés Duany, FAIA, has been pushing hard in this direction, too, advocating lifestyle communities with an agrarian ethic and declaring agriculture “the new golf.”
the cultivated coop
Long before the locavore movement took root, of course, there was Martha Stewart, crowing about her Araucana chickens and their decorator-ready, bluish-green eggs. A recent Martha Stewart Show segment featured a tour of the tidy coops—designed by Stewart herself—on her New York estate.
As livestock go, chickens have become the local-food symbol, since they’re legal in an increasing number of U.S. cities. And for most urbanites, a standard shack won’t do. After moving into their new Seattle home, clients of architect Allan Farkas, AIA, requested a coop to go with it. It’s set under an overhang on the terrace outside a guest room, so they can see the birds up close. The 6-foot-tall cage’s fine stainless steel grating matches the grating on the main house’s entry bridge. The roost box is cement board, painted green like the residence’s stucco, and stained cedar nesting boxes echo the home’s rainscreen. The client, a landscape designer, “has vegetables and wanted to add chickens to the mix,” says Farkas, a partner at Eggleston | Farkas Architects. “She would have been embarrassed to have something that didn’t go with the house.”
Rhode Island architect James Estes, AIA, placed his hand-built coop next to the vegetable garden, so he can scoop the bird droppings directly into compost bins. “We put the chickens as far from the house as we could so we wouldn’t hear them in the morning,” he says. “We let them run around in the yard all day and coop them up at night.” The coop’s shed roof faces south for solar gain in winter, and the rough-sawn eastern white pine and rafter tail details tie in with the house. He also elevated the coop, making it easier to reach in and clean.
While hens are a hardy bunch, they’re easily stressed, so practicality is as critical as appearance. Falaah Jones, an environmental educator at Seattle Tilth, says each bird needs 6 square feet of vertical or horizontal space and a snug, draft-free home. Also required: a protected outdoor run, with wire covering the top and dug 6 inches into the ground in an L shape to discourage digging predators.
Nesting boxes should be tucked away from the commotion and allow access from the outside for gathering eggs. You also need a door big enough to maneuver in to clean the pen. “In my coop I included a slide-out board beneath the roosting bars that you can scrape off every morning,” says Jones, who has four hens, one more than Seattle allows. “The roosting bars should be higher than the nesting boxes, because they’ll try to go to the highest spot.” Estes’ roosting rods are all on the same level to keep the birds from fighting for the highest perch.
Viveiros’ barn-red coop, like the house’s trim, was designed to be seen from across the garden, behind a low stone wall. “Older outbuildings had good proportions,” he says. “So much of making a wonderful little outbuilding is about scale.”
town and country
New York City architect Dennis Wedlick, AIA, who maintains a rural satellite in upstate New York, notes that on a country property, where there are open views, an accessory building can look quite different from the house. But in a suburban or urban setting, it should blend with the neighborhood’s scale and aesthetics. Otherwise, tiny, closely spaced buildings can look like a Disney farm. “Farm aesthetics generally went with larger properties; if you try to downsize that it can feel contrived,” Wedlick says.
Where space allows, “it’s a missed opportunity not to include outbuildings because they’re so utilitarian and inexpensive to build. They create a sense of place better than one building,” he says. He often pencils future dependencies into the master plan so that functional issues—vehicular access, power sources, septic fields—are ironed out in advance. Utilitarian buildings can double as party rooms, he says, and since they’re a potential source of alternative energy for a property, they should be positioned for optimal solar exposure.
As a farm boy growing up, Duluth, Minn.–based architect David Salmela, FAIA, says livestock buildings were placed to the south so prevailing winds carried odors away from the house. “Our own chicken coop had a sloped roof that faced south, with a row of windows high up so that it was always warm, dry, and bright,” he says. Whatever the outbuilding’s use, Salmela chooses integrally colored materials that age well, such as black or natural sheet metal. “I lean away from colored metal because it’s too sharp, too bright,” he notes, adding that dark green metal, which tries to imitate nature, is usually harsh and overly noticeable.
With large family farms becoming a thing of the past, backyard agriculture offers the chance, for those so inclined, to reclaim a sense of self-sufficiency. It’s satisfying on many levels—emotional, environmental, economic. And when food production is thoughtfully designed, the eye is as pleased as the palette. A version of this article first appeared in Custom Home magazine.