Automated Chicken Coup Door

We’ve been staying at a very interesting project outside of Berlin. Eco-hacker farm is a mixture of hacking initiative and sustainable living culture housed in an old watermill.

The site has facilities for composting all organic matter as well as greenhouses, growing spaces and wood fired heating and hot water.

There were many tasks to choose from, we chose to tackle the problem of fixing the door entry system for the chicken coup which was outside our comfort zone in terms of the fact we had not done much like it before, however we felt like facing a challenge!

The previous door was made completely using small electrical components, it was decided that updating the system, putting Arduino at it’s heart would make altering code and adapting functionality far easier. We learnt lots from this project and especially enjoyed documenting the code and component layout as it would make the task of updating the system by anyone else far easier.


The dead, old chicken door system.

We began by hooking a shiny new Arduino Nano (Clone) up to the motor for raising and lowering the door. The hack centre had all the things we needed to get started, the main component being a L293D, which is a small chip that controls direction and speed of up to 2 DC motors.


Below is a video demonstrating the use of an LDR to control a motor…

Motor/LDR test

Hooray, first success!

We than developed the code that the Arduino would run to check the amount of light, if it was above a certain level the motor would turn on for a fixed amount of time, if not it would stay shut. This program runs in a loop with a sleep function to cut down on power use.

Here is the Arduino code…

The basic function is the ‘edge detection’ which says to itself

“Hey, the light is bright” or “Isn’t it dark?”

And then goes “I will check to see if it was lighter/darker than a while ago”

That’s all it needs to do and the code worked well with no weirdness.

The next step was to create a breadboard layout to complement the code…

chicken coop door nano_bb

PS Fritzing is the FREE program used to create this layout, it’s super fun and is also used for making custom PCBs for your project. Very useful…

Fritzing the schematic…

We then migrated the project onto some ‘perfboard’ which is half way between a prototyping breadboard and a custom PCB.


We await photos of the installed system.

Very happy with what we achieved, please feel free to use the code or ask any questions.


The Golden Gate

We decided to return to Retzow, Germany after a short stay in Berlin. Luckily Henning had plenty of other projects to undertake. The gate was in serious need of repair, it was a struggle to move at all and just kind of sat there, separating the working area from the orchards and grazing land. Henning has seven lovely sheep, a couple of chickens and a dozen or so fruit trees in the area adjoining the garden and needed regular access so a new gate was essential to the daily life of the property.

The new gate was to be made of larch which was available from the local hardware store and is good for using outdoors as it has properties to protect the wood from weather. This is also good for keeping the project eco friendly and sustainable, it also means I don’t need to paint, which is the least exciting thing I can think of!

We started by cutting the boards to and interesting shape, we sanded them with a belt sander which closed up the end grain to make it smooth but also the most resistant to rain.



The most complicated part of the build was figuring out where the diagonal brace should go, as it required a bit of joinery on all three parts of the main structure. Once we had worked it out we cut the joints…..


The joint makes the diagonal compress between the top and bottom horizontal part and should add great strength, (I was tempted to hang off it once it was installed but I thought that might be pushing it).

We left the pencil lines as the weathering should get rid of them, better than having to sand them off as it could have affected its weather resistance.

Screwing down

The hinges were salvaged from the previous door, after soaking them in spirit vinegar for 24 hours the rust came off well. Cleaning them with a wire brush and cloth followed by a coat of linseed oil will hopefully help them to last for years more.


Firewood sheds

So, I am back on da road. Since my last project we’ve been doing bits and pieces all over the place. The other workaway hosts we have stayed with have had long term projects.

(which basically means you can stay for a couple of weeks without really making any noticable change or improvement)

So I won’t document it here.

After which we returned to the UK for Christmas as well as helping to install the London Illustration Fair which happened at the start of December.

I was itching to get my teeth sunk into a project when we finally got back on the road, this time we are making our way through Germany. Our first workaway host is Henning with a large, old government building in the small village of Retzow, a place surrounded by many lakes (all frozen this time of year).

Henning’s house is solely heated by wood fire stoves, half of the house has a gravity fed central heating system running from a furnace in the cellar, the other half is heated from individual stoves in each room which means the house requires a large volume of wood to be stored and dried in the large garden outside the property.

So the plan was to build three woodsheds at once. This would create a total of 24 cubic metres capacity.

Because Natasha & I were working together on this project we thought it was best to do it the most efficiently so we used batch production techniques in order to speed things up and so the finished products looked similar to each other.

We set about measuring the existing shed to make a detailed drawing and cutting list.

The next stage was to buy the materials, which sounds simple enough but considering the distance to the hardware store was roughly 15km away the hard task is getting all the correct materials in one trip! Apart from spending double or triple for the fuel, the time is the most valuable thing you lose if you’ve forgotten one small but crucial element of the build…..

After managing to complete that task we celebrated with chips.

The first part of the build was measuring and cutting each component according to the cutting list which was done using a circular chop saw.

The following task was to accurately mark and drill pilot holes in all the legs of the wood sheds, where the horizontal supports attach to create the basic frame structure. Because we were batch producing these, we set about making a jig to quickly mark where each piece needed pilot holes. The jig consisted of two lengths of offcuts fixed together to form a 90 degree ‘L’ shape. In one side of the jig we accurately measured and drilled 2 holes which would run parallel to the other side of the jig. Once the holes in the jig were drilled we added 2 screws so the slightly protruded from the holes on the internal corner. This means that when you place the jig up against the side of the piece of wood which requires holes, tap the top with a hammer and the jig accurately and consistently marks where to drill pilot holes. All this basically meant we could process all the stock into pieces that we knew would end up being able to be attached together.

The next stage was constructing the frames, because of the extra time spent marking out, the construction went together super fast.

We were now ready to start marking out where the spiked metal feet for the posts were to be placed. The main problem with marking out on the ground where to place the feet was the fact that they all had to be at 90 degrees to their adjacent feet. Which basically means you can’t just measure the distance between each foot (as you could end up with a rhombus shaped shed)

So we needed to make sure the diagonal length between the two opposite legs were equal. Once we managed to hammer the feet in to a roughly accurate square we could begin putting the frames in the feet and adding horizontal supports to create a three dimensional structure.

The next stage was to build the roof structures which each consisted of three beams that rested on the two oposite sides of the shed and 7 thinner battens (graten; meaning fish bones in German) running perpendicular to the beams which the metal sheet roof would be attached to.


After screwing together the wooden part of the roof we laid the metal sheets down and placed the frame on top of it and piloted through the wood to the metal below, we then flipped everything over and located weatherproof screws in the holes.

We then had to get the roofs on top of the shed and secure them with angled metal brackets.

The last step was to add the rough cut, natural edged pine boards to the exterior to protect the fire wood from rain but also to provide ventilation to dry it out.





So happy with how the project turned out…

The chicken mansion: (Chicken coop No. 2)

As mentioned in my previous post, I am unintentionally becoming a custom chicken coop constructor. This one’s a bit of a beast, made of new materials, big enough for a human to stand up in (or lie down and sleep if necessary), automatic feeding and door entry systems, and is almost entirely black.

Seriously it’s going to be pretty pimped…..

The structure has an asymetric roof which reflects the architecture of the building next to it.

Reinforcing the structure.

Moved in to it’s new location.

Cladding the coop….

The door….

Traditional Dutch style roof tiles.

Opposite, ‘Di stahl’ which has the same roof profile.


Chicken it out…..

Home and dry.

Checkpoint Two – Buitenwerkplaats

Our new home for 5 weeks is here, vastly different in many ways to our previous home, ‘Outside-work-place’ is a set of farm buildings outside of Amsterdam which hosts business getaways as well as artist retreats and residencies. The main building, formerly a farm building which was burnt down also looks like it doubles as a lair of a bond baddie.

With all of the building and cosmetic work being completed, the place operates daily and there is always a new face on site, either guests or workers attending the the vast area of land and buildings. There are many things to be done like attending to the permaculture garden as well as being generally helpful to Maud and Dago’ or guests.

My task is to build a(nother) chicken coop (my reputation must have preceeded me). As is always the case, the specification is different, so there are still many challenges to overcome and opportunities for learning new skills.

Importantly, one of the things I wanted to do during my year away was to build a roof. How boring, but such a simple thing might give me the confidence to build one for living under. And build a roof I shall….

Anyway, pictures…..

The ‘lair’, just add evil genius.

The workshop, wood and metal akimbo.

Outside of workshop.

Natasha and Dagobert weld some parts for an outdoor prototype bench.

Me and artist in residence Oscar.

Cows in residence.

So, I know it’s been a time since my last post, I blame [enter political scapegoat here].

I’ve been working lots on the chicken coop, post to follow about the build. I now have a couple of weeks ‘at ease’ so I hope to catch you up with my activities and manoeuvres.

Stay strong and true, X

Arduino project #1 – Bicycle odometer

It was only one week before leaving Blighty I decided, “What a perfect amount of time to try out my first proper personal Arduino project”. Of course by saying this one already knows that the time dissappears quicker than chocolate eclairs. But it was going to have to be enough.

I’m only an amateur at this so I hope this can inspire you to pick an Arduino or similar device and see what it can do for you.

I set about testing….

This breadboard version shows the program running; the first value is the number of revolutions, the second is a conversion to distance.

My bike had an old sensor (reed switch) attached to the front fork and a magnet attached to one of the spokes which is how the Arduino detects the revolutions.

Once I had found the correct logic function in the Arduino IDE the recieved data was very consistent and reliable

The next step was to build a case for the prototype so I could field test it.

Many thanks to my dear brother for putting me on to plastic fusing, the technique of melting together several layers of plastic bags to create a very cheap, versatile and 100% recycled material.

Here is a link to a tutorial for creating this awesome material.

By placing approx 5 layers of plastic bag (posher bags are thicker, cheap bags are thinner so adjust number of layers depending on the quality of material and application) with a piece of greaseproof paper on top and using a regular iron to fuse the layers together you end up with a durable, bendable and waterproof plastic sheet.

Cut your net for the case based on the size of the device.

An excellent property of this material is that it can be cut, folded, sewn and stuck very quickly and easily. Ideally I think the next version will be secured with poppers, the first version I ended up using what I had to hand; sticky backed velcro.

Once I had cut and stuck this together (adding some clear fused plastic for a LCD viewing window) I mounted it onto the bike for road testing.

The one key feature of the odometer is that it records data and stores it to the Arduino memory (EEPROM) so if the device is switched off or runs out of power, it remembers the last stored value so I can keep an overall record of the distance travelled on the trip (until I choose to wipe the memory).

Many thanks to Ian Gouldstone for help with understanding memory storage as well as Matthew Rudy Jacobs for figuring out the correct use of commands within the EEPROM library.

By the time I had mounted the Arduino to the bicycle it was time to leave.

The odometer was powered by a 9v battery. It lasted for approx. 100km before the battery was flat.

This led me to realise that I did not need the LCD to be on constantly, in the short term I took off the LCD to conserve battery power and added the internal LED of the Arduino board to indicate revolutions (so I could tell if it was recording or not).

I updated the code thanks to my ‘Hack and Pack’ setup which uses my pad, female usb adapter and ArduinoDroid software.

I have reckoned that the problems with mounting an arduino with protoshield directly to my bike is that the wires will rattle themselves out of their slots, so, I need to migrate the project off the arduino and on to a custom board.

I’m so pleased with how it works, the next steps will be:

  1. Shrinkify the prototype board
  2. Add a revolution indicator
  3. Add distance since turned on to the LCD display
  4. Make a sexier case.

This basic but reliable and practical bit of electronics should form part of a future project so stay tuned….x

A way (Wij) of life

After staying in Lemiers, South Holland with our first host, Astrid, we were given the privilege of sharing a magical place, a haven of tranquility and nature.

The Wij (pronounced ‘Way’) is 5 minutes walk from our host’s house. The plot of land is quite a handful. A large area in the centre for growing fruit and vegetables, is surrounded by space for grazing sheep, donkeys, chickens, a communal ‘living room’, out-houses, a stream and a tractor.

The name of ‘De Wij’ is a word play; ‘Wei’ translates as meadow, ‘Wij’ is pronounced the same but means ‘We’ – so combining the place with the many people that use it.

As well as the pleasure of being able to produce food, the Wij also has structures which in themselves symbolise what Astrid believes in and is something I can see that she practises in numerous ways throughout her life….

The reciprocal structure is something that gets its strength from being supported by something else and in turn passing on its strength to the next, paying it forward. In architectural terms this ends up looking something like a tee pee (tipi?). It also means you can create a large covered area without the need to support the roof from the middle i.e. having a whacking great pole through the centre of the living space.

The structure can then be covered with a living roof which provides insulation and helps to blend the structure into the landscape. I haven’t managed to take a decent shot of the reciprocal building as once you’re inside it is very hard to get a good idea of the structure as a whole. I hope to recreate this structure in the future if I ever have the space to do so (sigh).

I have learnt a lot of interesting things from this place. I’m sure it will inspire me and many others for decades to come.

The chicken hotel, part 2

So my first completed project as part of my year away in Europe. The build took 3 weeks (5 hours a day, 4 days a week plus some over-time), I’m so happy with how it turned out.

Features include: 100% recycled timber, portcullis style chicken entry, herringbone cladding, nesting box for 8 chickens, wheels for moving it to site/taking on holiday.

Our host for this project, Astrid, will be sorting out the additional things to allow the doors to the hotel to open next Spring, these include ramp, perch and exterior weather proofing. She was interested in the possibility of using a reusable product for the roofing: as she regularly hosts a number of volunteers, she gets through a lot of cartons of milk, the perfect use for this waste material (tetrapak) could be to use its waterproof properties to make a tiled roof with. I’m very excited about this idea and so is Astrid, I can’t wait to see and share photos of the outcome….. I wonder how many cartons it will take?

We say a fond farewell to all that we met whilst staying with Astrid and all the valuable things we learned; Pablo, Jorge, Chuck, Irene, Yoka, Steffie, the sheep, the cats, the goats: thank you. X