Poultry Coop Inspiration 10/1—The Alaskan Efficiency

From the fun and zany to the practical and functional, coops come in all shapes and sizes, and designing them can be half the fun of raising poultry. Here is a backyard coop idea, as explained by the designer.

Poultry Coop Inspiration 10/1—The Alaskan Efficiency

Written by Stefan Milkowski
Design by Stefan Milkowski & Ian Herriott

Chickens in the arctic?

Sure! Winter temperatures in Fairbanks, Alaska, regularly drop to -40 degrees Fahrenheit, and it can snow from September to May. But every spring, the local feed store is alive with the chirping of chicks, and quite a few people successfully raise meat birds and layers, ducks, geese and turkeys.

After wanting chickens for years, my friend and neighbor Ian and I decided to go for it this spring. We got a motley mix of Black Langshams, red sex links, a Buff Orpington, a White Brahma, an Australorp, a Silkie, a White Crested Black Polish, a bantam and two ducks. We raised the chicks inside and then moved them to an uninsulated shed for the summer. We knew the big challenge would be to keep the chickens warm in the winter — and productive — without spending too much money on heat and light. Fairbanks is only 200 miles south of the Arctic Circle, and Ian and I live on the north side of a hill that doesn’t get any direct sunlight for a few months each winter.

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Beethoven, their White Crested Black Polish hen, was the first chicken down the ramp.

We both built our own cabins and I was doing weatherization work for a local non-profit, so we had lots of ideas for building an energy-efficient coop. I wanted to try something I’d seen on a farm near Portland, Maine — a passive solar collector using greenhouse panels and a big pile of rocks. The hope was that the rocks would collect heat from the sun during the day and release it into the coop at night, reducing the need for a heat lamp during the shoulder seasons.

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To help keep the coop warm in the shoulder seasons, we sealed 750 pounds of rocks behind greenhouse panels. The rocks are heated by the sun during the day and release their heat into the coop at night.

We knew people who had pieced together coops with salvaged materials. But I was excited to try out new building techniques and Ian wanted something with curb appeal in front of his cabin, so we went all out.

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For siding, we used rough-cut 1-by-8 boards with a shiplap to ensure coverage after shrinking. The chicken door and people door have the same R7.5 foam insulation as the walls.

We framed the floor and walls with local white spruce timbers, cutting mortise and tenon joints and pinning them together with (non-local) oak pegs. We assembled the floor — 6-by-8 feet for the coop, 2-by-8 for the rock pile — in April, when snow still covered the ground. Over the next several months, we cut and assembled the rest of the frame, sheathed the frame with plywood, installed rigid foam insulation (R7.5 on the walls, R10 on the ceiling and floor), and built insulated doors with thick weather-stripping. For siding, we ordered rough-cut 1-by-8s from the local sawmill and then cut deep shiplaps on the table saw so the boards would still overlap after shrinking. We painted the coop with a traditional barn red paint made from boiled linseed oil, turpentine and red iron oxide.

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We separated the rock pile from the main coop with an insulated wall and cut four vents to allow air circulation. We gathered rocks from a pile of mine tailings in the valley below us, their tops stained red, coincidentally, by iron oxide. The farmer in Maine used 10 cubic yards of rocks to heat his shop. We added rocks until the pile looked about right — 750 pounds in all — and then sealed the rocks behind greenhouse panels. The panels face due south.

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Stefan and a friend lock the final piece into the frame. They used local white spruce timbers. Photo by Ian Herriott.

As with any Alaskan building project, we ended up racing the weather. We screwed down the metal roofing on an evening when cold air rolled down the hill with the setting sun. It snowed in mid-September, just four months after the last snow in May.

I’d learned from my weatherization work to “build tight and ventilate right,” and we’d sealed the coop tight from floor to ceiling with silicone and spray foam. For ventilation, we cut vents on opposite sides of the coop and installed an in-line duct fan to blow air out. We put a 60-watt equivalent LED bulb on a timer to keep the birds laying as the days got shorter and connected a 250-watt heat lamp to a thermostat. When we tested the red heat lamp one evening, the greenhouse panels glowed like a spaceship. I knew we’d done something right when on a 60-degree fall day, the temperature in the rock pile hit 86 degrees.

We moved the birds in at the start of October.

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