Urban Hens

In our 2008 sustainability issue, we featured the Boulder residence of Rob Pyatt and Heather Kahn-Pyatt. The project was a renovation of a 1940s bungalow that Pyatt undertook with his own hands (and the helping hands of his brother), building on experience he gained while working on straw bale dwellings in a neighboring town.

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Pyatt (who runs his own firm, Pyatt Studio) blended a modern style with deeply environmental sensibilities, using panelized compressed straw to give the house a more polished, urban feel than the earthen homes out toward the mountains. The final outcome was a low-profile home with corrugated metal brighting wood plank facades.

Almost a year later, we are revisiting the Pyatt-Kahn residence, where the backyard has undergone its own transformation as the research guinea pig—or in this case, chicken coop—for a design/build class Pyatt is teaching at the University of Colorado's School of Architecture and Planning. The Urban Hens Project, as the course syllabus puts it, aims to "develop a sustainable model for establishing chickens in urban settings. Backyard chickens can provide a healthy, local food source and bring a not-so-new dimension to homes, schools, and communities seeking sustainability."

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One of the primary goals of the project is to work with youth, providing hands-on educational opportunities to learn about tending hens and raising food. The older students in the CU course partnered with the University's Children, Youth and Environments Center to strengthen the focus on kids. Once the coops are up and running (the next one is being installed next week at Boulder's Community Roots urban garden), they will demonstrate closed-loop and lifecycle-conscious systems, taking waste from the coops to compost, which can be used to grow vegetables in the surrounding gardens. In Pyatt and Kahn's own backyard, a set of raised vegetable beds have been built using pine from trees that have died in the epidemic of pine beetle ravaging much of the Rocky Mountain region. (It's called "beetle kill pine.")

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More coops will be going up next month as Urban Hens works to sponsor coops for community groups, schools, and low-income neighborhoods. Perhaps best of all, Pyatt's background and interest in modern architecture and the input of his collaborators has encouraged the design of the coops to be modern and urban, replacing the often ramshackle wood scrap-and-wire farm style of the typical coop with something bright and attractive. No reason to leave style by the side of the road on the way to creating more sustainable local communities.

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