Chicken Sedan

May 21, 2014

By Harley Cowan

Q: Why does a chicken coop have two doors? A: Because if it had four it would be a sedan.

My wife, Carrie, wanted backyard chickens for years. When we decided to move forward we really did our research. We went to the Clark County and Oregon State Fairs. We read up about the various breeds. We went on Growing Gardens' Tour de Coops, an annual self-guided tour of Portland's backyard chicken habitats. And when it came to providing the structure I said that I would design and build it, to which my wife replied, "That'll take forever."

...and it did.

But after all, as architects, we believe that design can be a part of nearly any project. Even Frank Lloyd Wright said, "Regard it as just as desirable to build a chicken house as to build a cathedral." And, in fact, Portland has more urban chickens per capita than any other city in the U.S. so it seemed appropriate that someone in Portland's design community should champion this underserved demographic!

What resulted was a little doll house of a coop that eventually garnered an award from the Portland chapter of the American Institute of Architects (AIA). Since it had four doors, we named it the Chicken Sedan.

The Chicken Sedan is a cedar shingled A-frame combined coop and run for urban hens as allowed by Multnomah County. It is movable and designed to fit over our raised planter beds thereby putting fertilizer where it ultimately needs to go. A combination of fixed and operable ventilation allows for a comfortable and healthy environment for the birds year round. I paid attention to making the structure predator-proof, including reinforced screens and lockable latches. All metalwork, including hinges and latches, is galvanized. Removable canvas shades on either side of the run control exposure to the elements.

Complete access to the interior for cleaning and collecting eggs is provided by means of four doors (i.e., sedan). Custom fabricated stiles and flashing ensure a dry coop in wet weather. The removable triangular door to the run is large enough to allow a person to crawl inside. A nest box hangs off the back of the coop and has a lid door designed for easy egg collection. The lid door has two lockable positions depending on the need for additional ventilation.

A garden hose can be connected to galvanized plumbing at the run to service an automatic watering bowl. A hook under the roost in the run holds a hanging feeder at a comfortable height for the birds to minimize spillage. It is located near the run door for convenient refilling. A ramp between the coop and run is a draw-bridge door on a spring hold-open and is operable from the outside by means of a steel cable. This is generally left open except during extremely cold weather. Hemlock handrails were utilized for chicken roosts.

I had a picture of the finished coop on my computer desktop at work. Joachim Grube encouraged me to submit it in the upcoming 2008 AIA Awards. Initially, I didn't give the thought any serious consideration until Roger Yost and a few of my then-coworkers got on the bandwagon, too. So I put together a submission and board and ended up winning the Peoples Choice Award.

Well after this the accolades just came rolling in!

Following the AIA Awards, the Chicken Sedan took first place in the Yard category at Portland Spaces magazine's Root Awards. Juror Karrie Jacobs, founding editor-in-chief of Dwell magazine wrote, "Possibly my favorite thing in the competition."

Portland Spaces published a full page color spread. Then my alumni publication Washington State Magazine (Go Cougs!) sent a reporter and photographer to do a piece. Even Sunset magazine featured the Chicken Sedan on Page ten of the June, 2009 issue.

Karrie Jacobs talked about it on her blog in a couple articles called Architecture for Chickens. The Chicken Sedan was added to the Inspiration Gallery at Even the San Diego Chicken gave it an endorsement: "You should be very proud of the structure and I'll bet the chickens are laying the best eggs possible, given that kind of friendly hen house... I look forward to seeing the Sedan in the media many times over. You should even be on HGTV!"

It got a lot of attention but not all of it was good. Apparently it ruffled some feathers around town and at least one Portland AIA member threatened to discontinue his membership over this.

One day, I got a call from Doug Benson, Regional Director of the AIA, informing me that this was not the first time an animal abode had been recognized by the Portland AIA. In 1975, landscape architect Michael Parker received an Honor Award for his submission "Miss Molly's Cat House."

Mike was a bit of a notorious figure around Portland in the Sixties and early Seventies. It had been rumored that he would get physical with bureaucrats who got in his way. He competed racing cars and motorcycles on weekends. He was legendary at YGH for having driven his motorcycle up into their Johnson Street studio (the one near the Goose Hollow Inn) during a Christmas party. After dropping his membership in ASLA, the American Society of Landscape Architects, he used the acronym PFLA after his name on letterheads, business cards, and job site signage. (It was three years before someone asked him what PFLA stood for, to which Mike responded, "Portland's Finest Landscape Architect!") And he was responsible for some of the most significant landscape projects in the Northwest including the PSU park blocks, the original entrance to the Portland Airport, and Portland International Raceway.

Doug still had the original program from 1975 AIA Awards and we met for lunch to take a look. The juror who had selected the cat house for its award was Dave Scott, the Director of the School of Architecture at WSU. Dave was still the thesis professor when I attended WSU. Small world.

I really wanted to get in touch with Mike Parker so I asked around trying to find out what had happened to him. This got all kinds of responses. "He's dead." "He's an airplane pilot." "He races motorcycles on the national circuit." "He became an environmental activist." "He's an aerial photographer." "He drives a bus in Astoria."

Then one afternoon, I got a phone call from Godfrey Humming, the national president of AIA. He was very upset, said he had heard about my submission and award from the Portland AIA, and demanded to know what made me think that it was acceptable to submit an chicken coop to the AIA. But I knew better. My caller ID said "Michael Parker."

As it turned out, all the rumors about Mike were true and a chicken coop started a friendship between a seventy-six year old retired landscape architect and a forty-year-old kid. But that's another story altogether...


Harley Cowan


Senior Associate