We are renting but have a large enough backyard that we can fit several garden beds, and as we won't be building anything permanent it won't be hard to restore the garden to it's former state (grass, grass and more grass).
I did a lot of research and eventually found that a 'geodesic dome' is the most structurally sound, portable and spacious form to build. As we don't have a huge amount of space, I needed to modify the design a little to ensure that it was tall enough and had a suitable diameter for our plans. So we now have a chook dome loosely based on a geodesic design, which is light enough to move around the garden.
If you read on, I'll explain how to do it all. Apologies for the crappy diagrams - I only have the Word suite to work with! Ah, if only work had forked out for Illustrator :)
This wasn't a particularly cheap structure as we had to buy all the materials new. If you can scavenge a bit and find some bits and pieces, the cost will plummet. We also figured that building it new wasn't too bad an investment, as it will be around for years to come.
- electrical conduit piping - this was the best combination of strength, flexibility and uv tolerance as compared to PCV or rubber pipe. It's also fairly cheap at around AU$3.50 per 4-metre length. I bought 12 x 4m lengths. Don't forget that this may not fit in/on your car if it's small (like mine). I had to have the pipe cut down into 2-metre lengths, which I re-joined with pipe glue later. Also, the pipe I used happened to be orange, but you can also buy it in grey.
- joiners - conduit piping has a bell end and a flat end, but if you are joining flat ends you will need some plastic joiners. Just straight ones from the hardware store will be fine, mine cost about 90c each.
- pipe glue - your hardware store should be able to advise what is best for the pipe you are using.
- cable (or zip) ties - buy a few packs of different sizes - I ended up using nearly 400 in total, ranging from 40mm to 200mm in length. Wire could be used instead, but I found that cable ties were easy, quick and simple to adjust or remove.
- chicken wire - I used 2 x 15m rolls of new chicken wire. If you can scavenge some, even better!
- small to medium sized tarpaulin - mine is about 2.5mx1.8m. Heavy duty is best as the silver side reflect sunlight and it is more waterproof.
- shade cloth or similar - a couple of metres should do. I've got plans to use an old tent instead, again cutting down on costs.
- drill, preferably cordless
- hacksaw or pipe cutter
- tin-snips or pliers
- markers (2 colours is helpful)
Step 1: Preparation, Stage One of Construction
Once you have all the materials at home, it's best to start by glueing all the pipes that need to be reattached.
You will also need to attach 2 lengths of pipe to form the base circle of your dome.
As the glue needs time to cure, simply glue the 2 lengths together at one point, then move on to step 2.
Cut the remaining lengths of pipe to size with your hacksaw or pipe cutter. For this dome, I required:
- 5 lengths of pipe at 4m
- 5 lengths of pipe at 3m
- drill holes just large enough for your cable ties to thread through at each end of the 10 lengths of pipe from step 2. The holes need to go straight through both sides of the pipe.
- the glue from step 1 should be dry now, so gently bend the 8m length of pipe into a circle and glue the ends together. You may need a hand with this step as it needs to be held firmly in place for about a minute.
Step 5 - measuring around your circle:
(a) - you will need a tape measure or ruler to divide your circle into 5 equal parts. For an 8-metre circumference circle as I had, this means you have 5 x 1.6m sections. See the diagram.
(b) - next, measure 10cm lengths on either side of the marks you have already made. Again, see the diagram.
(c) - drill holes through the marks at 5(b).
(d) - go around the circle labelling each pair of marks A and B (A on the left of the first marks, B on the right).
Step 2: Stage Two Construction - Begin Assembly!
- attach the 3m lengths first. See the diagram.
- Wrap the cable ties through the holes in the base circle and the end of the 3m length. Don't worry about it being completely tight at this point, you can always go back around later to tidy things up.
- attach the poles with one end at A and one end at B, so they overlap. Weave the poles so that they overlap in a pattern (i.e. pole 2 goes over pole 1 to point A, then pole 3 goes over pole 2 at point A - when you reach pole 5, it should go under pole 1 ). As a result, the 'flower shape that you end up with at the end should lift up like a mandala - when you pick up one pole, all the others will lift upwards too!
- see the diagram for more details.
- Lift the poles off the ground so they gently rise upwards forming the walls of your dome. Attach cable ties at the joins, crossing over in both directions to ensure a secure hold. Don't tighten the ties completely initially - you can go back and do this once all 5 joins are sitting evenly.
- Now go back around and tighten all the joins, including the ties attaching the base to the ends of the poles.
NB: You may notice in the photos that one of our lengths is shorter, and therefore the curve is lower than the others. This was a genuine stuff-up on my part, when one of the lengths I had rejoined broke at the joint and after several attempts I just couldn't get it to stay glued together. As a result, that length of pipe is now only 2m long. I haven't found that this has impacted upon the dome overall, it just looks a little less symmetrical - mind you, it could be a different story in the long-term.
Step 3: Stage Three Construction - the 4m Poles!
Now take the 4 metre poles. What we're essentially doing is the same as in Stage 2, but these poles are longer and curve over the top of the shorter poles.
Step One - measuring again!:
- This time measure halfway between the points where your 3m poles are attached. This should be 1.4m/2 = 70cm. Mark this middle point as per the diagram.
Then, as in Stage 1, measure 10cm either side of this point. This is where your 4m poles will be joined.
Label points A and B again and drill your holes as in Stage 2. Also label the pairs numbers 1 through 5.
Continued next page...
Step 4: Stage Three Continued...
Attaching the poles is a little different this time. Instead of crossing over with the next pole in the sequence, this time the poles cross to the second-to-next pole in the sequence.
This is where the numbers come in handy. Rather than Stage 2, where the 3m poles connected 1a to 2b, 2a to 3b etc., the 4m poles need to cross over as follows:
-pole running from 1A - 3B
-pole running from 2A - 4B
-pole running from 3A - 5B
-pole running from 4A - 1B
-pole running from 5A - 2B
The aerial view will look like a pentagram, as in the diagram. However, as the dome is now mostly upright, you may not see this view until the dome is complete.
As you attach the poles, weave them in and out of one another - this will increase the strength of the dome and hence it's life span. This part is easier with someone else to give you a hand.
As in Stage 2, use cable ties to attach each end of the pole, and tighten once complete.
- go over every join with a couple of cable ties. Although this is tedious, the more joints you stabilise, the sturdier it will be and the longer the dome will last. My joins are sturdy with two ties crossing over each joint, and it's strong enough that I can now hang a full feeder (serveral kilos) from them without bending the dome at all!
Step 5: Stage Four
This is the bit that I found the most fiddly - attaching the chicken wire...
Essentially, you can see what needs to be done, and I haven't come up with a particularly clever way of doing it. All I can recommend is that cable ties are quicker and easier than wire, and you will want to wear some gloves. Tin snips are great for trimming too.
You may find (as I did) that you need to make 'pleats' in the wire in order to fit it neatly around the dome. Cutting triangular wedges could make it all look tidier, but I just found that I didn't have the energy!
You will want to leave a gap for the door at some point - wherever is convenient for you is best, depending on your height. I have placed our door at quite a high point, so that the hens can't just walk out when the door is open, but I can just step over the edge easily. This is also a result of the shorter length (as explained in Stage 2) of pipe creating a lower curve.
So - may the force be with you! Feel free to comment if you find a nifty shortcut.
Step 6: Stage Five - Setting Up for Your Hens!
We currently have a weird door made from scrap bits of piping and chicken wire, however it's not ideal. I'm still working on Jackie French 's idea for a door - it's essentially a tunnel made of shade cloth which is sewn/securely wired to the edges of the hole left for your door. You then just tie the end closed outside the dome. I like this design as it allows you to just push the tunnel inwards to climb in or deposit food scraps, and the hens can't just hop out the door! If you're using an old tent like me, a sewing machine should be OK, otherwise I'd recommend hand sewing the shade cloth.
We have foxes in our area (despite being in the city!) but didn't want to cover the entire base of the dome with chicken wire, as we need our girls to thoroughly scratch over the soil and grass. After much research, we decided to add a 'skirt' of wire to the bottom outside edge of the dome - apparently if a fox was to try and dig it's way in, they start close to the edge, so this should prevent them from being able to get in. If you don't want them scratching the ground so much, you could just cover the base of the entire dome with chicken wire. If you wanted to put them somewhere more permanent, digging about 30cm of wire down into the ground would work instead, or a decent garden bed edge (such as sleepers or bricks) built down into the ground would be great.
We added a couple of branches from an old cherry tree as a roost. I have also seen domes where people used some lattice which they hung from the roof of the dome, but for our 4 hens 2 sturdy branches is plenty.
I also built a nesting box out of some old timber crates, but the catcher from an old mower, the drawers from an old dresser or just about any box-like container will do just fine. I think most people recommend one nesting box for about 4-6 birds.
The tarpaulin you purchase should cover around 1/3 of the dome. The tarp needs to be pegged down seperately to the dome, otherwise it acts as a giant kite and with a decent gust of wind the whole thing could blow away! I've just got mine held down with bricks as well to keep it snug and reduce flapping.
Our hens will have their open area facing towards the north in winter to allow plenty of warm sunshine. We may also add a second tarp just for overnight when it's particularly chilly.
You will also want to add feed and water containers, lucerne or other hay and anything else you wish to keep your hens comfy!
And now you just need to add your hens, give them some TLC and enjoy!