Mid-century modern architecture. Japanese shou sugi ban wood exteriors. Wall-to-wall block-print wallpaper. Shabby chic crystal chandeliers. These aren’t features in a Los Angeles home, but the kind of amenities in some of the US city’s more elaborate chicken coops.
In a town obsessed with design and indoor-outdoor living, it makes sense that pet owners want to keep their chickens in high-style comfort. In addition to giving them a chance to personalise their living spaces, urban homesteading offers a taste of pastoral life that’s elusive in a city of over four million.
As backyard fowl continue to make news in California after recent cases of Newcastle disease, it’s worth noting that tending chickens can be traumatic. Free-ranging can be deadly. Coyotes, raccoons, hawks and mountain lions will prey on hens. And extreme heat can overwhelm them because chickens don’t sweat.
Something as simple as an avocado can be fatal to chickens too. So why do urban homesteaders endure heartache, illness and loss? Because chickens are like any other pet: They make folks happy.
“It’s extraordinary to have chickens and fresh eggs, and engage with them,” says gardening consultant Lauri Kranz, author of A Garden Can Be Anywhere: Creating Bountiful And Beautiful Edible Gardens.
“I love visiting clients with chickens. They’re so happy to see me, but I always have a serious talk with clients who want them. When you raise chickens, you’re engaging with the natural world in a whole different way. No matter how well your coop is built, it still runs the risk of predators,” says Kranz.
“They’re more than cute, sweet and fun. It’s a huge responsibility,” she says. So, here are six urban homesteaders and how they personalised their coops in budgets from US$750 (RM3,140) to US$14,000 (RM58,640).
Inspired by the clean lines of mid-century modern architecture, Casey Caplowe and Ellen Marie Bennett wanted a coop that would complement the lines of their home in Echo Park. “We wanted an Eames-inspired coop,” says Bennett, founder of the culinary goods brand Hedley & Bennett.
In a nod to the 1950s, Caplowe, co-founder of Good magazine, built a slant-roof coop and painted it a vibrant yellow. The colour palette augments the home’s animated interior, highlighted by a yellow Bertazzoni range, aquamarine heath tile and an orange sliding barn door.
At the bottom of a terraced yard filled with drought-tolerant plants, edibles and decomposed granite pathways, the midcentury-style hen house is home to a group of silkies that Bennett refers to as “the ladies”.
Olive Oil is the sole survivor of a flock that died during a heat wave in 2018. She now chooses to live in a backyard tree, visiting the coop for meals when not socialising with Oliver, the family’s 90kg pig, on the upper deck.
“Olive Oil has laid eggs in his pig hut,” says Bennett, a former chef. “I like the idea that when people come over, they can go outside and enjoy the ladies. It’s fun to show people where their food comes from.”
As a design director at Gensler, the largest architectural firm in the US, Irwin Miller has overseen everything from Eataly marketplace in Century City to TV producer Shonda Rhimes’ new office across from Paramount Studios in Hollywood.
So, it’s not surprising that Miller’s coop is a distinctive structure on a property steeped in Hollywood lore (Apocalypse Now screenwriter John Milius lived here). The lush compound at Beverly Crest is home to several small structures: a 84sqm main house, a 37sqm studio, a detached “man cave” for Miller’s two sons, and a “she shed” for wife Heidi.
Miller built the coop in an enclosed patio underneath an enormous grapefruit tree. The emerald green coop has a mathematical sensibility, incorporating a triangle theme that continues throughout the compound’s dwellings.
At night, the family can sit outside and enjoy the four silver-laced cochins, their sweet labrador Olive, and a nearby hot tub. A surplus of vines keeps the coop cool, and a motorised door that Miller detailed with red and green stripes opens and closes automatically when the family isn’t around.
Miller also hung a sparkling, shabby chic-style chandelier from the centre of the coop. “The crystal is a nice touch,” he says with a wink. “It exudes good energy.”
For Kate Richards, whose Drinking With Chickens website encourages readers to interact with their birds while enjoying a “garden-to-glass” cocktail, living well means ending the day outdoors with husband Jonathon Ragsdale, their 10 fowls, and a lavender-infused tequila sunrise on their Sierra Madre property.
In eight years of keeping the flock, Richards has designed seven coops. Her latest, a fully insulated enclosure she built with Ragsdale and her father Rich Richards, is stylishly decorated with planters, pink and coral painted stripes, and vinyl peel-and-stick botanical block-print wallpaper.
The wallpaper (by Sarah Treu for Spoonflower) may seem extravagant, but Kate says it “camouflages poop on the wall and is easy to wipe down”.
She originally wanted her hens – which average 10 eggs a day – to roam free, but after they foraged everything in her yard, she installed the coop in a 4.5m by 7.6m enclosed garden at the back of her property.
There, they can exercise in a run made of pressure-treated wood, while vines and shrubs protect them from hawks and owls. The run rests on 30cm-deep permeable pebbles, so Kate can sweep and hose the path when necessary. Meanwhile, a comfortable seating area, outfitted with lounge chairs and custom iron wine-glass holders, and an adjacent cocktail bar provide ample room for guests and entertaining.
“It’s very tranquil out here,” says Kate, whose book Drinking With Chickens is due in 2020. “Chickens are funny and entertaining creatures. They’re filled with joy. All I’m doing is encouraging people to take a moment to enjoy them.”
Since launching their homesteading store, the King’s Roost, five years ago in Silver Lake, Trish and Roe Sie have offered goods and classes suited to LA’s DIY culture. So when it was time for their own coop, they got a Western red cedar roll-top walk-in structure from Urban Coop (starting at US$4,700/RM19,700).
Designed for 20 chickens, the coop arrived in 12 flats and took them a week to assemble on their Los Feliz property. They also personalised it with framed photos of roosters above the roost area, along with an image of a lone hen.
When the temperature hit 40.5°C last summer, they added a generator and an AC unit. Flowering trumpet vines, which shade the roof, also help cool the coop. The couple judiciously prune the vines, which are poisonous.
“Trish is the rooster,” Roe adds with a laugh. “She’s the only person I’ve ever known who has had a flock of chickens name her.”
Outside the door to the coop, a wooden dust bath filled with clean ash wards off parasites. And when a neighbour greets the family over the fence, Trish emphasises the need to be respectful of their community.
“We make sure our neighbours are OK,” says Trish, director of the film Pitch Perfect 3 and the forthcoming The Sleepover. “We’re tidy. We share our eggs. We made sure the coop is the legal limit from the house.”
Abundant seating and electrical outlets allow the family to work outdoors and be near their pets. Ruby, their Rhode Island Red, even watches casting tapes with Trish. “The worst thing about travelling for work is not being with them and my family,” says Trish. “I’ve thought about having them as companion pets.”
At Plumcot Farm, Alison Hersel’s 2.8ha property in Malibu, everything is small batch, from the honey to the more than 100 types of edible medicinal crops she’s grown on the organic farm. She added chickens five years ago because she wanted to demonstrate regenerative farming to her three kids in a hands-on way.
The 9.3sqm wooden coop is a large, minimal structure that provides the chickens room to roam while allowing Hersel the chance to share information with the public. “Recently, in a cooking class, one of the kids cracked a fertilised egg,” Hersel says. “Chickens prompt you to have conversations about the cycle of life.”
The structure is lined with 1.6 sq cm chicken wire that goes down almost 1m deep and surrounds the perimeter. The coop also features an interior space for egg boxes, and an exterior where the birds can meander in a protected environment (Hersel allows them to free-range outside the coop under supervision).
Shou Sugi Ban
When Ilse Ackermann describes herself as a “chicken consultant to the stars”, her tone is tongue-in-cheek. But she has the non-disclosure agreements to prove it.
Her job, which involves 24-hour “fowl consultations” for anxious clients with broody birds, stems from her years living on Skyfarm, an urban farm in Lincoln Heights which she shares with her husband, photographer Meeno Peluce, their two daughters and 25 animals.
She may design custom coops for Hollywood’s A-list, but her own is more modest, built of inexpensive wood and a galvanised roof from Home Depot that she estimates around US$1,000 (RM4,195). By contrast, the coop’s black charred exterior stands out in an orchard filled with colourful plants and edibles.
“Shou sugi ban style is super chic and you don’t have to do anything to it,” Ackermann says of the ancient Japanese technique. “It’s great because it’s bug- and weather-resistant.” – Los Angeles Times/Tribune News Service
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