Here we are in Kensington, driving up winding streets named for Ivy League colleges and English prep schools, breathtaking Bay views on the left, tree-lined, lavishly landscaped houses on our right. It’s green and quiet, just what you’d expect from a neighborhood up in the hills with Tilden Park as its backyard. Quiet, that is, until we hear the unmistakable squawking of chickens. “Oh, our neighbors have chickens, too,” says homeowner Russell Brent, showing us into the backyard. “And ducks!”
We’re here to take a look at Brent’s new chicken house, custom-built by Kevin McElroy and Matt Wolpe of Just Fine Design/Build, who have recently become the East Bay’s go-to guys for one-of-a-kind coop design. A prefab cabin that looks like a dollhouse—the chickens’ starter home—lies discarded nearby; Brent plans to give it to a friend who just started her first flock. The new coop has a wide, low, wire-fenced run where Flora, Fauna, Merryweather, Aurora, and Maleficent can peck and stroll. “My husband’s very into Disney,” explains Brent. “They’re all named after characters in Sleeping Beauty.” A square redwood tower rises from the back corner, its sides painted in Mondrian-esque squares of bright primary colors, a block of red on one side, a block of yellow on the other, the whole topped with a bright blue “butterfly” roof, made from a single sheet of steel to mimic the roofline of the Mid-Century Modern main house. Inside the tower, a zigzag of blunt wooden steps leads up to a loft for roosting; the underside of the stairway forms a set of geometric nesting boxes. “Now the girls are in couture!” laughs Brent about his chickens’ new designer digs.
By contrast, the coop McElroy and Wolpe designed for Novella Carpenter’s Ghost Town Farm in West Oakland is more sprawling, post-grad group house than sleek design for living. It was built to be shared by a motley crew of chickens, ducks, and rabbits, and in keeping with Carpenter’s DIY aesthetic, all the materials (except for the predator-proof wire mesh) were recycled or repurposed. The walls are made from wooden pallets, broken down, sanded, and varnished but with traces of their original blue paint intact; the slabs of corrugated iron that make up the roof came from a farmer friend of Carpenter’s. A close inspection reveals myriad clever details: a blackboard wall over the nesting boxes, for marking daily egg production or making notes; a strip of wavy-edged board blocking the gap between the top of the walls and the ridged iron roof, to keep out rats, mice, and other critters; an overhanging roof that creates a dry, shady spot for stashing bags of feed.
McElroy and Wolpe, both chicken owners, created their first poultry project for the 2010 Maker Faire. Chick-in-a-Box, a small but stylish backyard coop—you could imagine the chickens inside having a subscription to Dwell—earned them a blue ribbon as well as exposure, and praise, on Treehugger and a handful of other blogs. Storey Publishing approached them to do a how-to book (due out next year), and suddenly, “We were the funky chicken coop experts,” says McElroy.
In the past year, they’ve created 10 coops in the East Bay, including Stoop Coop, which doubles as a set of backyard stairs, allowing people to “sit down, have a beer, hang out with the chickens,” as Wolpe says. Another is the treehouse-inspired, pole-mounted Coopsickle, a red cedar box that’s accessed by a chicken-sized spiral staircase. The two both teach woodworking and metal fabrication at The Crucible; other than that, they agree, “It’s all chicken coops, all the time!”
Stephanie Rosenbaum is a longtime Bay Area food writer and the author of The Astrology Cookbook: A Cosmic Guide to Feasts of Love (Manic D Press), Kids in the Kitchen: Fun Food (Williams-Sonoma), and Honey from Flower to Table (Chronicle Books). She blogs for Bay Area Bites on KQED.org as well as on her own site, Adventures of the Pie Queen, https://piequeen.blogspot.com/
Stacy Ventura is a food and travel photographer based in Marin County. Her work has been featured in Food and Wine, Acura Style, Marin magazine, Santa Barbara magazine, and the Edible Communities publications. When not taking pictures she can be found tending to her small flock of chickens. View more of her work at www.stacyventura.com