Wonky wardrobes and tilting tables - how we hate making furniture. Matt Clark meets a woman whose self-assembly nightmare inspired a career change

FLAT PACK; two words guaranteed to send shivers down anyone’s spine. We’ve all been there; the picture promises so much and the one on display looks fantastic. But once we get home and the packaging is opened, it’s downhill all the way.

Baffling shapes spill out, followed by a thousand bolts and a thousand and one nuts. There’s enough dowel to build a bridge and instructions that do anything but.

Penny Roberts’ deconstructed culprit was a hen coop; or rather a collection of anonymous planks and a set of shoddily photocopied instructions. There were two days of mumbled words and grazed knuckles before Penny fathomed everything out. “It was a botched job and disappointing,” says Penny. "I soon began to notice a distinct decline in my husband’s enthusiasm for poultry-related DIY.”

With good reason. The run wasn’t big enough, the roof leaked and it took repeated trips to B&Q before the coop was even half decent. Perseverance and ingenuity eventually made it safe for use and Penny adopted four chickens from the British Hens Welfare Trust. Her ‘girls’ seemed happy enough in their new home, but all the time a thought kept nagging: "Surely I can do better than this? It was a bit make-do and I thought if you are going to have a coop in the garden, you want it to look as pretty as the hens.”

So Penny scribbled a few sketches before coming up with her ideal hen house. It had to be light and efficient; spacious and cute. She wanted a full-size door and no more unreachable nooks and crannies for pests to thrive in. Then came the tricky bit; putting those ideas into practice. “The prototype was finished 18 months ago and it was one of the most beautiful things I have ever seen," she says. "My son Charlie agreed and we lost no time in rehousing our girls from the old coop.”

It really is amazing. Penny’s designer hen house is more like a tiny cottage with a thatched roof, a chimney and cottage-style windows. “When I take breakfast out in the morning, the girls are all standing on their perches, looking out of the window as if to say ‘what time do you call this?’ It really is like being in a posh hotel and waiting for room service.”

So good that people began asking for one. Now Penny has given up her day job to design and sell Henny Penny Hen Houses. “The coops are made by craftsmen just outside York and are constructed to suit the chickens’ needs first," she says. "My job is to take note of customer’s feedback and preferences.”

Which are many and varied. Take the client who wanted hers finished in Farrow and Ball paint – eggshell, naturally. Then there was one who asked if she could have central heating. But a new enquiry from the Middle East has topped the lot, leaving Penny wondering how she can add air-conditioning as an option.

Each coop has a unique build number on a plaque above the door and, best of all, Henny Penny Hen Houses come ready-made. Which means no flat-pack misery, no dodgy instructions, no mumbled words and no bruised knuckles. “To me chickens complete the garden and it’s lovely to see them poddling about," she says. "Of course, they produce the best eggs you’ve ever tasted and if you want to do a good deed, you can rescue some of the 16 million battery hens in the UK who need a home.”

Sadly only 60,000 are rescued every year. The rest are slaughtered and Penny is keen to convince more people to adopt them. They make adorable companions and are a real bargain. A good breed of hen costs up to £9, but rescue hens are free, apart from a small donation.

You need to be patient, though. After being stuck in a space no bigger than an A4 sheet of paper, the chickens can hardly move their legs; they are understandably timid and it takes a few weeks to adjust to their newfound freedom. “It’s shocking when you first see them," says Penny. "They look so poorly and dishevelled and you just think, how can this be allowed to happen?”

Penny now has 13 rescue hens, along with ten posh ones, as she calls them and, to complete the picture, Henry, a magnificent cockerel. Charlie named one of the hens Fluffy Fat Bottom, for reasons he says are obvious, and Penny is about to write a children’s book, telling Fluffy’s story from her confined days as a battery hen to a new life in the fresh, open spaces of North Yorkshire.

“A lot of people are unaware of what happens to battery hens," she says. "You’ve heard of Children In Need, well what about Chickens In Need? Saving one hen may not change the world, but it will change the world for that one hen.”

And waiting for her is a house to really crow about.

W: hennypennyhenhouses.co.uk

Penny also has a blog which covers her real-life chicken keeping adventures at www.bloghennypennyhenhouses.co.uk

Twitter: @hennypennyhens

Facebook: henny-penny-hen-houses

To find out how you can rescue factory chickens and more about the British Hen Welfare Trust visit bhwt.org.uk