A Fox-Shaped Tree House Came to Her in a Dream. So, She and Her Husband Spent Years Building It

The Maine couple pulled off their unconventional ode to the woodland creature without an architect or engineer.

Welcome to Different Strokes, a look at unique home design choices that beg for further explanation.

In 2019, when Heidi Richards was searching Craigslist for leftover building materials and found triangular windows, the discovery kick-started a unique, multiyear construction project in the Maine woods.

Heidi, a grade school social worker with a passion for architecture, was in the midst of a two-week Design Build course at Maine’s Shelter Institute, and planned to create an off-grid tree house on the six-acre property where she and her husband, Nicholas Cote, own a tiny home. That evening, she went to sleep mulling over whether to purchase the windows and dreamt about a tree house in the shape of a fox head. In the fox’s "ears," there were lofted spaces, which the angular windows would fit perfectly. A sleeping area surrounded by more windows created the snout.

After Heidi woke up the next morning, she drew a rough sketch of the fox head and shared it with her husband, a professional welder. "When I showed it to Nicholas, I was like, "What do you think? It’s cool, right?" When he agreed that the design had promise, the couple decided to go all in on the project—ditching their original idea for a rustic tree house and opting instead to build the 520-square-foot Copper Fox Treehouse, with the idea that they might even live in it full-time one day.

Heidi worked with a local paint store to match the stain for the exterior shingles to a fox’s white-and-copper-colored fur. The steel roof of the tree house has a powder-coated copper color.

Heidi worked with a local paint store to match the stain for the exterior shingles to a fox’s white-and-copper-colored fur. The steel roof of the tree house has a powder-coated copper color.

Heidi and Nicholas used the 3-D modeling software SketchUp to design the structure, which the pair created proportionally around the windows, much like in Heidi’s dream. Heidi sketched out the floor plan—a first-floor kitchen, bathroom, bedroom, and living space, along with a second-floor loft with cozy nooks for sleeping or reading. Nicholas took on planning the structural beam work, which due to the geometric dimensions of the fox head, took nearly a year to parse out. Without the assistance of an architect or engineer, Heidi says they planned obsessively: "There wasn’t a question of whether or not it was going to work."

While Maine is one of a dozen U.S. states that allows accessory dwelling units (ADUs), there are, of course, building standards that must be followed. Heidi checked in with her town code enforcement officer every step of the way, mainly so she and her husband wouldn’t get too far ahead in the process without knowing their plans would be approved. The officer knew the couple were building an elevated structure, but he wasn’t aware of its shape until a year into the project. "I sat down with our officer and said, ‘We have an initial picture that we’ve drawn out, and I’m gonna let you know it’s funky, but it meets everything that we’ve discussed so far,’" says Heidi.

With a building permit in hand, the pair concentrated on creating a realistic exterior for the Copper Fox. Using a collection of dried cedar logs that Nicholas had set aside for the original tree house, the pair used a friend’s antique mill that had sat unused for years to craft the rough-cut shingles that would appear variegated like fox fur. "Everything we did was a very thought out decision to get the look of the fox just right," Heidi says.

For the interior, Heidi played with the woodland theme. She spent a year searching online for acorn-shaped fixtures that she then worked with a local lighting shop to make into two hanging pendants with carved acorn tops and attached wooden squirrels (the latter detail hand-carved by a neighbor). She also found a 100-year-old, cottage-style door on Facebook Marketplace for the bathroom that she removed layers of lead paint from and designed a new jamb for, adding a carved fox key at the top. "I’d say the door is one of the most special things inside," Heidi says.

With the Copper Fox now complete and listed as an Airbnb rental, we asked Heidi and Nicholas a few burning questions about the inspiration and logistics of their unique ADU project. Our conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Dwell: Beyond the dream that inspired the design of the tree house, what’s your connection to foxes?

Heidi Richards: I was a Division I runner at Marist College, and the school mascot is a fox [named Frankie the Red Fox]. Because I was an athlete, I spent a lot of time representing the Red Foxes. There’s also a real fox that lives in the woods behind our house, and it has a family of kits each year.

The fox theme continues throughout the tree house’s interior.

The fox theme continues throughout the tree house’s interior.

At what point did you shift from making this your own future home to a rental?

HR: Once the shape became the fox, we decided to step it up a notch and make the tree house luxurious. If there was a product we wanted to use, even if it required more money, we committed to that, which was hard at times. Once we got to that point, that level of detail, we decided to make an income off the property.

So what was it like using the 1880s mill to make the exterior shingles?

HR: It is incredibly scary to operate that mill. Your fingers are right next to this blade that’s four feet tall. It started up and I thought, that’s a fast blade. It was shaking the building.

Nicholas Cote: The spinning blade, you know, it’s moving a lot of air. Sawdust is flying around all over the place. Because it’s not a high-horsepower machine, the friction from it would start slowing the blade down, forcing the teeth to go off to one side. In the beginning, the shingle would be the proper thickness, about half an inch. Sometimes the mill almost stalled because it was going through so much wood. By the end, the shingles could be an inch thick or even more.

Did you have any second thoughts about using the antique mill?

HR: Oh, the whole entire time. I don’t know that I’ve ever repeated something in my head so much: I said, ‘Please keep us safe’ for five days on repeat. But since the mill wasn’t quite operating properly, it created much rougher shingles, which aided in the look of the fur.

Speaking of the fur, it must have taken great patience to stain each and every one of those shingles the right color.

HR: Staining the shingles was a massive undertaking. We used every single shingle. We had just enough. When we finished installing the shingles, I’m like, I have no clue how I got that math right.

The Copper Fox Treehouse Airbnb rental is located on the owners’ six-acre wooded property near Bradbury Mountain State Park in Pownal, Maine.

The Copper Fox Treehouse Airbnb rental is located on the owners’ six-acre wooded property near Bradbury Mountain State Park in Pownal, Maine.

There are at least ten fox-themed items in the tree house, including the kitchen hardware, bedside lamps, and fox key above the bathroom door. Are there other fox-inspired elements you’re proud of?

HR: The Pattern Collective wallpaper in the bathroom. I knew the leaves, woodland theme, and copper elements felt just right. It’s designed and hand-screen printed in England.

I actually showed one kindergartner my first sketch of the tree house because they like foxes. The student said, ‘Ms. Richards, that is not a fox! It looks like a dog.’ That kind of crushed me a little bit. The ears I drew were flat at first. After I showed that student the drawing, I made them pointy, even though it seriously complicated the project. That change probably added months to our build, but that kid was right! 

You both have spoken a lot about the challenges of creating the complex geometric structure. Looking back, what are you most proud of?

HR: The fact that we’re a couple and we pulled this off together.

Top photo: Jennifer Bakos photography, courtesy Copper Fox Treehouse


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