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Originally published Saturday, December 8, 2007 at 12:00 AM


The un-McMansion: Cozy, custom, still costly

Sometimes, a person just has to build their own house. They do so for the technical challenge of customizing everything from windows to...

Milwaukee Journal Sentinel

Not-so-big information

To learn more about Sarah Susanka, new urbanists and the not-so-big philosophy go to: which has plans and other details. includes articles about Susanka's foray into promoting "not so big" lifestyles, based on her latest book, "The Not So Big Life" (Random House, 2007) showcases residential house plans such as the Maple Forest model built by Peter Oster.

— Milwaukee Journal Sentinel

Sometimes, a person just has to build their own house.

They do so for the technical challenge of customizing everything from windows to roof trusses; for the satisfaction of seeing how the radius of the half-circle deck reflects that of the arched brackets supporting the roof above; to polish by hand the hickory woodwork; to see the appreciation reflected in a visitor's first glance.

Peter Oster of Wisconsin saw the house that he just had to build.

It was designed by Michaela Mahady, of the new urbanism school of architecture, which emphasizes smaller houses with fine details, built in walkable communities.

He found it in the seminal book "The Not So Big House," by Sarah Susanka, an architect known as much for framing an un-McMansion philosophy of house design as for her own thoughtful plans.

Hansel and Gretel met modernism and the result was Mahady's "Maple Forest," all sheltering porches, authoritative overhangs and weather-shucking angles.

Oster appreciated it as only a construction engineer can.

Decades ago, he earned a degree in architecture, but he ended up spending years in construction-project management.

He's out of that now and has taken up home building by starting his own company, Lakeport.

He limbered up with two houses in the subdivision where he lives in Mount Pleasant, Wis., between Milwaukee and Chicago.

While building them, he found a local stone shop that can take his drawings and hew stone in precise degrees to border tiger-wood decks.

He also found local woodworking shops that can set true divided-light windows into solid wood garage doors.

His version of Maple Forest is elevated above its subdivision neighbors in every regard.

The 2,740-square-foot house rises a few steps from street level, allowing for tall basement ceilings and extra-high basement windows that let in enough light for a true living level.

Its steeply pitched roof and dramatic gables give it a sharp and shadowed silhouette on the skyline, unlike the lower and straighter rooflines of nearby ranches.

And he's asking a not-so-little $825,000.

"I want to build interesting houses, not tract houses," Oster says.

The design was already labor-intensive, with details such as built-in desks in two bedroom dormers. Oster chose each wood, each type of tile, the hardware, the light fixtures, piece by painstaking piece.

"It wasn't to make life harder, but it was something to sink my teeth into," he says.

Now his labor of love is running up against the unsympathetic realities of the real-estate market.

The traditional method of estimated an asking price — comparing a house with those of similar size and condition that have recently sold nearby — doesn't fit this house, he believes.

"Appraisers and real-estate agents can't get past counting rooms," he says.

Rooms do count, and this house has eight, setting it on grade with less-grand efforts in the fill-in-the-blanks world of assessments and mortgage financing.

In addition, the master suite has an oversize walk-in tiled shower, a whirlpool, two walk-in closets an oversize arched window with built-in maple window seat and cabinetry.

The house also has two decks and one screened porch.

It will take someone willing to pay a premium for the not-so-big philosophy says Faye Becker, a Racine, Wis., real-estate broker since 1979 who has shown Oster's house to several house hunters.

Oster notes that the other two houses he built in the subdivision each sold for about $400,000.

Becker said the asking price of this house is on the higher end of the market.

"It is an absolutely beautiful house, and superbly built. The craftsmanship shines through," she says.

"Somebody's going to get a spectacular house."

This house may not return the profit Oster calculated when he broke ground nearly two years ago.

But standing in the pool of warm light cast by the square-armed light fixture in the dining area, looking out the windows to the deepening dusk, he doesn't regret it.

Copyright © 2007 The Seattle Times Company

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