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Ralph Genovese's custom home construction on Del Dios Highway

Site 151’s four-million-dollar mansion

The colonnade outside the back of the living room has been ripped out and replaced with an enormous beam.
The colonnade outside the back of the living room has been ripped out and replaced with an enormous beam.

Ralph Genovese doesn't use the word "mansion" to describe the three dwellings he will construct on a mountaintop in Rancho Santa Fe. He prefers "estate." He's building one of the homes for himself, and he hopes to sell the other two for close to $4 million apiece.

The first to take shape will have 7400 square feet of interior space that will open to ocean views sweeping from Mexico to Catalina Island. In addition to the master-bedroom suite and the kitchen and the family room and the dining and living rooms, this home will have three secondary bedrooms, five full bathrooms, two powder rooms, a study, a gym, a game room, five fireplaces, garage space for four cars, a wine cellar designed to hold 500 bottles, and outdoor-entertaining facilities that would look respectable at a hotel. "Whoever buys these homes is going to get something magnificent," Genovese predicts in late August 2002, on the eve of groundbreaking. "We're gonna do a nice job."

Mason smoothing inner edge of stone pool coping

Genovese has consented to let a reporter follow the construction on the condition that the house, rather than he, be the main subject of the story. His background isn't relevant, he says; he retired from a publishing career in the Chicago area. He has overseen the building of two other custom homes: one in the Midwest and one in Rancho Santa Fe, where he and his wife now reside. From their current home, they can see part of the five square miles that constitute the Cielo development, where Genovese's properties are located. They first got interested about five years ago when they noted increased activity in the area. Around the fall of 1999, the Genoveses got onto the property in a four-wheel-drive vehicle, they liked what they saw, and they closed escrow on the three lots in the late spring of 2001.

You get to Cielo from the commercial zone that's at the center of Rancho Santa Fe by driving east on Paseo Delicias, which soon becomes Del Dios Highway. After about five minutes, you pass the signs for the Crosby, an enclave of 433 homes under construction on 722 acres. The driveway into Cielo is located a few hundred yards farther east on the hilly northern side of the highway. Both "production" and custom-home sections have been designated in this community. In the production areas, three different builders have been erecting some of the priciest tract housing in San Diego County (ranging from $1.6 to $2.5 million). It is in the much larger custom-home section, however, that Genovese bought his property, which includes site 151.

Lots in the custom section cost between $700,000 and $1 million, a sum that gives the buyer title to between one and three acres. That may sound like a lot of land, but much of it consists of hillsides. The level building space at site 151 is an area that's 150 feet wide by 135 feet deep, roughly a quarter of the total property. Genovese will be building one of the first custom homes in the community. Its only predecessors are the four houses that were featured in the luxury home tour sponsored by the San Diego County Building Industry Association in 2001. Site 151 sits between two of those four "Tour d'Elegance" homes and across the street from the other two.

The names of those four -- Bella Cielo, Sotto Il Monte, Villa di Bella Loggia, Palacio Pacifico -- suggest a Mediterranean influence that is echoed in the Italianate guardhouse, located up a long driveway from the road, and in a Romanesque aqueduct, just beyond the guardhouse, that carries water from Lake Hodges to a local reservoir. According to the developer's public relations spokeswoman, the tract homes are supposed to conjure up images of Tuscan hillside villages. Cielo's design requirements allow for some wiggle room, however, and Genovese has taken advantage of this. The style of his own house will be "eclectic Mediterranean," and the one at site 151 will be French.

Genovese contributed to the design of all three houses. It's not hard to do, he suggests, even when you don't know anything about the future buyer. Certain elements must be incorporated because any high-end buyer would expect them: walk-in closets, a kitchen island. Genovese says while planning the Cielo houses, he talked to realtors about buyers' interests, and those conversations confirmed his impression that single-story residences were a hot commodity. The Genoveses' own home at Cielo will occupy just one level. The two spec houses will have limited second stories, "but they're both designed so that the person who buys them can live on one floor. They don't ever have to go to the second floor if they don't choose to."

He says he copied designs: some gleaned while traveling in southern Europe, others from photos. He took his detailed sketches to Dan Castillero, who's been building deluxe houses in San Diego County for more than 25 years. Castillero created detailed construction drawings. His construction company will build all three of Genovese's mansions.

Groundbreaking, August 21, 2002

The beginning looks so simple. Bulldozers have scraped Genovese's ground of its covering of low chaparral. Against the tawny dirt, white chalk lines mark where the walls will rise. Soon activity will burst forth at this site. But today it's flat and empty.

Cool breezes are blowing, moderating the sun's heat. Eight miles away, the ocean is the color of polished turquoise. This is the morning David Westerfield will hear himself declared guilty of murder, kidnapping, and kiddie-porn possession. By the time the verdict is read in downtown San Diego, a single backhoe operator will have gouged out the first trenches in the corner of site 151 that's farthest from the street. The operator figures it will take at least two and a half more days to finish digging where all the lines have been drawn. The stony ground makes the going slow.

But the driver is a methodical man. Over and over again, he brings the backhoe's narrow arm downward to claw into the earth. It's not a tranquil process. Growling engine noises mix with loud metallic clunks and bangs and shiver-inducing scrapes.

When Genovese shows up around 1:30, he jokes that he's feeling numb. He had hoped to start building his other spec home, located up the hill from site 151, almost three months ago. But the grading there is much more complicated than it is at this site, and Genovese has run into delay after delay at the county's building department. "It's a real hassle getting something done here," he complains. "It's unbelievable. Takes months and months and months. There's so much conversation and so much engineering and so much re-engineering. And so much of it is repetitive. Every time you go into County, you're looking at a wait of anywhere from two weeks to five weeks. And they change the rules on the fly."

He has decided to begin the work at site 151 and move on to the second spec house a few weeks later. Despite his frustration with the bureaucrats, he looks relaxed and happy. "You've got to be prepared to work at it. You've got to focus on the goal and go for it. You've got to be diligent."

The first pour

September 27, 2002

Before the first concrete is poured, even though trenches have been dug and lined with planks of wood, even though rods of steel have been run through the trenches and more steel has been laid in a complex lattice across the expanses that the trenches surround, the site still feels like a part of the natural world. Birds and insects and animals might be at home on it.

But once the gloppy concrete has been squirted into the enclosures, once it's been spread out, smoothed, and made flat and featureless, something profound changes. Humans have marked this piece of the earth.

At site 151, this drama begins to unfold at 6:00 a.m. with the arrival of the pump that will help the workers get the concrete where they want it. The pump is mounted on a ten-wheeled truck, and it's attached to what looks like a gigantic boom. As each concrete mixer arrives, it dumps its contents into the back of the truck; then the pump impels the slurry up to the top of the crane and down a pipe that can be directed with a remote-control device. Attached to the pipe is a hose. Today a burly older worker is muscling around the nozzle on the hose to aim the stream of the semi-liquid material.

The workers expect to pour at least 200 yards of concrete -- more than 25 truckloads. Six concrete mixers will share the job of transporting it from an Escondido plant to site 151. After each one dumps its load, it will return for another load, a 90-minute round-trip.

Genovese is on the scene early. Beyond all the permit reviews, a lot of work has already taken place to advance the project to this point. Soil engineers have analyzed the site, which Genovese says "is actually very good to build on. This is solid rock and stone. It's all decomposed granite." A structural engineer has studied the plans and calculated "how much steel to put in and what sort of concrete should be utilized to bear the weight of the house." A plumber has laid out the pipes that will be buried underneath the concrete slab. "That's usually all the drains and the initial gas feed, that kind of stuff," Genovese says.

The soil has been compacted and covered with a layer of sand. Sheets of Visqueen have been placed on top to serve as a barrier against moisture, and more sand has been layered over the plastic. "Then the concrete guys lay all the steel that's in the footings and in the pads," Genovese explains. The concrete being poured today will make the fragile-looking network of steel part of a monolithic structure, massive enough to anchor whatever's built on top of it, an immobile base in the face of wind or shaking of the ground.

When it's first deposited within one of the forms, the concrete looks like loose mud. But a crew of maybe 15 men perform a complex ballet to transform the rough material into a finished product. First they stomp through the muck, using shovels and their rubber-booted feet to spread it out. Several workers scramble to flatten it further. Some drag a long wooden board over it, while others wield a tool that looks like a giant potato masher. Later they switch to using trowels: handheld ones around the edges and a huge one attached to a 20-foot-long pole for the interior expanses. As the concrete firms up, the men continue smoothing and refining, like bakers perfecting the frosting of a cake. What they wind up with is a flat, level surface. It doesn't have to be flawless. None of the concrete poured today will be exposed to the eventual occupant. Every inch will later be covered with stone or carpet.

Watching the men work, Genovese comments on the fact that they're all "of Mexican persuasion." They're all working hard, he notes with approval. "They all could be on the dole. But they're not. They're all working. Making a living. From that perspective, I have a lot of pride in them. They work hard and we didn't have to give it to them." The politicians who want to give government handouts to the poor "are gradually destroying this nation," he thinks. "It really annoys me because I've lived 62 years, and this is a wonderful country. If you can't make it here, you can't make it anywhere. There is no reason why an individual in this country has to be anything other than living a decent life. And yet we have them all around us, because we intentionally make them dependent upon us." It irks Genovese when people assume that wealth results from luck. "There's no such thing as luck," he declares. "You do your homework. You press. And then it appears as if you were lucky." The man who will buy this house from him won't have been lucky, he predicts. He'll be "a smart guy who worked hard and was able to go out and get enough money to buy this house." The concrete laborers might be just as smart, but most of them will throw their money away instead of starting their own businesses, he states. "That's how America has been built: you start your own business when you know your trade well enough. But you've also got to know how to sell. You've got to know how to control people. 'Cause they all need control. That's the biggest pitfall for many people: they can't deal with the people issues. That's why they never become the boss."

Genovese dismounts from his soapbox. One of the first areas to be poured is an octagonal pad near the rear of the property. This space will become an eating nook situated off one corner of the 350-square-foot kitchen. The kitchen, in turn, will adjoin the 650-square-foot family room. Genovese has thought a lot about the flow of this house. He thinks architects often churn out designs without sufficient reflection. You walk through their creations, and one thing after another makes you wonder why they were built they way they were. Genovese has an answer: "They did it that way because nobody paid attention. They could have done it differently, but they didn't."

Overhead, dark clouds to the north are drawing closer. Cool, moist weather is great for pouring concrete. It keeps the material from drying out too fast and cracking. The onset of heavy showers would be a problem, but Genovese doesn't look worried. "I mean, it doesn't rain in San Diego."

He shifts his gaze earthward again. One of the oddities of building a house is how one's perception of its size shifts as the work progresses. "They start chalking it out, and it looks so damn big, and you go, 'Oh my God. That's big!' Then after they get done pouring all the concrete, and you pull all this wood off, and you backfill, all of a sudden it looks small again. Then you put the sticks up, and you say, 'Oh my God. It looks big again!' Then you start putting the little walls inside and you say, 'Oh my God, this looks small again.' "

Framing's underway

October 11, 2002

In just three days, a forest of sticks, as Genovese calls them, has sprouted at site 151. In the sudden change from two-dimensional concrete footprint to three-dimensional wooden matrix, the mansion-to-be feels enormous.

Although the concrete will take 28 days to reach full strength, the framers started their work just 3 days after the big pour, on a breezy Monday morning. They're not employees of Castillero Design and Construction. They work for a subcontractor. This same crew will be framing all three of Genovese's projects. A couple of lead framers will be on the site from the start of framing to the finish, and at times other specialists will be brought in. Some will bang nails into sections of wall that have already been laid out for them. "And then you bring in people to build trusses and sheet floors and nail roofs. They come in. They set up for it. They knock it out," says Jeff Garner.

Garner is a Castillero employee, a crucial one: the superintendent overseeing all three of Genovese's projects. For the next couple of years, his office will be located in a trailer parked up the hill and across the street from site 151, on the property where Genovese and his wife will live. Tall and broad-shouldered, Garner has a boyish face but a manner that's all business. In college, he majored in finance, and he worked in retail for a while. But "I decided I wanted my weekends off," he recalls. So more than 20 years ago, he decided to try to break into construction.

"I started out as a laborer on a construction site." He worked his way up to being a framer, then a construction supervisor. "We were building hotels and stuff like that. Then the lead person who was running those jobs went out and started his own construction company and took me with him. If you meet the right people, and they can see that you're driven and you really want to learn, people will teach you." In September 1993, Garner went to work for Castillero, a move he says has worked out well. "You have to enjoy what you're doing, and I just love what I'm doing."

Garner explains that the first thing the framers at site 151 did was to prepare the junction between the concrete foundation and the wooden skeleton-to-be. The concrete contractor had laid the groundwork for this by placing upright threaded steel rods (known as anchor bolts) into the footings that form the perimeter of almost every room. After the concrete was poured around them, these anchor bolts protruded several inches above the surface of the floor. When the lead framer, a compact, aristocratic-looking man named Marco, arrived on the scene, he and an assistant began making the "base plates," the bottommost pieces of wood that would sit directly on top of the concrete. Holes had to be drilled into them so that they could be slipped over the anchor bolts. Once all the base plates were prepared, the framers, working with the materials laid out on the ground before them, could start nailing the base plates to the tall vertical studs and short horizontal wooden blocks. Each completed section of wall would then be tilted up, lifted, placed over the anchor bolts, and secured with nuts and wooden braces.

"You start at one side and you work your way through," Garner says. "It's like doing an Erector Set." Indeed, after just three days, the progress seems amazing. Almost all the first floor is standing, and there's a beauty in the complex geometry of the framers' handiwork: all rectangles and squares and right angles. It's a warm, pastel peach- and salmon-colored beauty, and the freshly cut pine and Douglas fir smell good too. Hammers pound, a confident noise that mixes with the slithering of measuring tapes and soft music from a Tijuana radio station.

Piles of wood -- planks and two-by-fours and floor joists and more -- have been stacked all over the lot. The lumber going into this house is worth about $100,000, so much wood that it's being delivered in batches; otherwise there wouldn't be room to store it all. Increased structural-engineering requirements have meant "there's a lot more lumber in these houses now than there was even five years ago," Garner says. "We have 20-foot ceilings in some of the rooms. If you do a normal house, that would have eight- or ten-foot ceilings." To enhance the impression of solidity, Castillero and Genovese have designed the house with walls that are up to 12 inches thick in some areas.

Besides the framing, other activities have been unfolding on the site. Masons have begun building the low wall that will wrap around the north and east sides of the property. They're using buff- and rust- and gray-toned stones that came out of the ground here when the footings were dug. Garner wants to get rid of the on-site generator as soon as possible, so he's been working to run utility lines (electrical, gas, phone, cable, security) onto the property. "It's a scavenger hunt." He explains that the pipes come up near the property line, but they're buried. The utility companies "tell you approximately where they are, and sometimes they're right on the money." They can also be up to 40 feet off, but yesterday Garner's men located everything they will need.

Plumb and line

October 14, 2002

The mansion's frame doesn't look as if it's tilting. All the planes appear to meet each other at 90 degrees. But this is illusory. Everything is only more or less level. The work this day will make it precisely so.

Marco places a hefty carpenter's level up against the side of a stud. He checks the bubble of air inside the vertical gauge. If the bubble isn't centered in the vial, he calls instructions to his fellow workers. They adjust the angle of the walls by using long wooden braces. As they work, the flexibility of the frame becomes evident. Sometimes only a tiny nudge is required. At other times, they have to push and shove a section into the proper inclination. "¿Más?" they call.

"Poquito más" (a little more), Marco answers. As soon as the bubble settles between the two lines in his level, he yells out, "¡Clávalo!" (Nail it!) His helpers then nail the braces into position, affixing most of them to blocks of wood that have themselves been nailed to the concrete foundation. Later, when the roof sheets and plywood shear panels have been added to the structure and given it stiffness, these braces will be removed.

Marco says the leveling operation will take a day or two. He and his crew will then start nailing shear panels to the outermost studs. These are large sheets of plywood that will stiffen and stabilize the frame. They're the first true dividers of indoor and outdoor space.

The house seems to be going up almost as fast as one of those Tijuana dwellings built by church groups in a day. Garner, the construction superintendent, says the apparent initial speed often confounds people having custom homes built. "They say, 'What do you mean it'll take ten more months? It's almost done! I'm ready to move in.' "

Arrival of the roof trusses

November 1, 2002

The roof trusses are large, mostly triangular pieces of framework that Genovese has ordered from a factory, rather than having the framing crew build them on the site. Constructing them that way has two advantages, he says: the prefabricated trusses are both less expensive and more precise. The manufacturer delivered them yesterday to the empty lot across the street from site 151. Now an operator is using a crane to pick up bundles of trusses and drive them across the street. Holding an attached line, Marco tries to steady the bundle. He looks like a man out walking his dinosaur.

Next to the house, the crane operator lifts bundles of trusses onto the tops of rooms, where they'll be unbundled, positioned, and nailed into place. Over the past two and a half weeks, the mansion has become a lot more corporeal. There's shear panel on a number of the surfaces, and all the second-story walls have been framed. No staircase connects the two floors yet; the workers are using a crude ramp to move between them.

The roof is on

November 18, 2002

Installing the roof trusses and covering them with sheets of plywood has effected a huge change at the construction site, at least as seen from the street. Instead of a disorganized jumble of separate parts, the building now looms as a single entity, albeit one with several wings.

Most prominent is a wide, low-slung section that's canted toward the driveway. In this section, the roof bridges a wide passageway between two substructures. Genovese envisions the one on the right as a guest room, while the one on the left won't be a room at all but a little garage. After driving through the covered passageway, Genovese sees the future master of the house parking his Lexus SC or Porsche Boxster here, rather than in the main 800-square-foot garage.

The physiognomy of the rear of the mansion, too, has undergone changes. Off both the family room and the living room, the framers have constructed coverings for future patios: ponderous wooden structures supported by stout square columns interspersed with arches. Shear paneling has been affixed to more exterior walls, and as a result, it suddenly feels as if the inside of the house has lost its spectacular view of the surrounding panorama. (That's another construction illusion; dozens of spaces for large windows and glass doors remain.)

There's more to look at on the inside now. Whereas the outer frame of this house isn't all that different from that of a simple bungalow, the inside will have numerous deluxe features, and the framers have begun to work on these. Almost every doorway, be it three feet wide or nine, will be arched, and every arched top must be created from numerous short blocks of wood -- a more costly and complicated process than simply nailing a header beam across two posts. Almost every ceiling will be fancy too. Genovese wants a network of recessed panels (known as coffers) above the kitchen, for example, and the complex honeycomb of wood required to create that has already begun to take shape. Other ceilings will be barreled and domed and vaulted.

On this afternoon, Genovese is having an extended conference with Jeff Garner and his boss, Dan Castillero, in the master-bedroom wing. This part of the house will include not only a huge room for the owners to sleep in but also a sunny attached sitting room facing the breathtaking view. Two enormous walk-in closets, two bathrooms (his and hers), a gym, and a study (for him, Genovese imagines) complete the layout. The three men have just decided to make the sitting-room ceiling a groin vault and to add some short "stub walls" to better frame the picture window there. "When you walk in here, that will be your focal point in the bedroom," Genovese predicts. He's also been mulling the exact placement of several interior arches, along with the connection between the man's bathroom and the bedroom and sitting room. If it were open, the guy would be able to step out of his luxurious shower and take in a view all the way to the border. The three men decide to frame a four-foot-wide doorway so that the buyer can add a door if he wants to. But they think it would look better without one.

Asked why he has reserved the bathroom with the best views for the man of the house, Genovese bristles. "Look at her bathroom!" he demands, moving to the large room next to the sleeping chamber. "Are you kidding me? Look what she's got here!" She'll have a toilet/bidet room bigger than some people's bedrooms. She'll have an 11-foot-long wall of cabinetry, next to a tub of royal proportions. "And a fireplace over here!" Genovese adds. "We're putting in a fireplace for her! What more do you want? See, she's sitting here, doing her makeup, and look what's reflected in her mirror!" That spectacular view to the south.

What he's doing now is "feeling the spaces," Genovese explains. Despite what the plans say, it's important to be willing to make changes, he believes. "You walk into any building, and you'll see something wrong with it." Genovese thinks that's often because "somebody followed a drawing" instead of making adjustments when it made sense to do so. "We're trying to fix the errors as we see them, as we go along."

Tarpapering the roof

November 25, 2002

The weather forecasters say rain might be arriving later in the week, around Thanksgiving. In anticipation, a crew of workers has arrived this Monday morning. By early afternoon, they've blanketed most of the tilted planes of the roof with the waterproof material known as tarpaper or felt.

The roofers unroll the spools of paper, overlapping and aligning each length with the previously laid row; then they tack the new section down with unhesitating smacks of their hammers. From the ground, it's impossible to see how they manage to snatch up nails, affix them to their hammers, and pound them in so fast; it looks like one smooth motion. Part of the secret is that the nails come with little round collars of lime green plastic that make them easy to pick up. Many of the hammers used by the roofers also have a little ax head so that the men can cut the tarpaper with a minimum of wasted motion.

This afternoon a lean, tanned, happy-looking man clad in shorts stands watching some framers who are working near the roofers. He looks as if he might be a neighbor checking on the progress of the new building on the block. In fact, he's Bob Bacon, owner of the framing company. He says this house doesn't contain any elements he and his crews haven't put together before. "But you always come across little glitches here and there that you've got to figure out." At the moment, they're rebuilding a section of load-bearing wall where Genovese and Castillero have decided to change the design. "It was fun to figure out," Bacon says. "It's fascinating. You're putting a puzzle together."

Asked to compare the framing in this project to what there would be in a modest tract home, Bacon chuckles. "A tract home? They don't make those anymore! Everything is now between 3000 and 5000 square feet." Still he ventures that if anyone were building a 2000-square-foot home, all the framing for that could probably be completed in four weeks. In contrast, his crew has now been on this job for seven weeks, and a lot of work lies before them.

The windows have arrived

December 5, 2002

Dozens of windows stand stacked up in the garage, and a few are being installed. They're Windsor Pinnacles, casement-style, fabricated entirely of wood. Genovese says he's studied all the windows on the market, "starting at the top of the line and going down to the bottom. On a scale of one to ten, [the Windsors] are probably, pricewise, a seven. But in terms of value, I think they're a ten."

Besides beginning the window installation, the rough carpenters have added the central staircase located to the left of the front door as one enters. This has undergone major revision from the way it was drawn on the plans. Once Genovese started feeling the three-dimensional spaces, he realized that, as planned, the staircase would deliver those who descended it to face an unremarkable wall separating the living and dining rooms. He, Castillero, and Garner began tossing around alternatives and came up with a wide, sinuous structure that curves down and almost enters the living room. It will look even more striking, Genovese promises, when it gets its ornamental iron railing, one of the house's French details. "It'll look like New Orleans style," he says.

The windows are in

December 19, 2002

A few of the French doors need to be hung, but every window opening has been rimmed with black weather-proofing paper and fitted with its white-framed glassy shield. All of the house's more prominent windows are arched at the top, a refinement that costs at least twice as much to build as standard, square-topped windows.

Genovese is deep within the thicket of expensive decisions about the ceilings, arches, doorway entries, and soffits. "You do that after you put all of the framing up," he declares. He knew in advance, he says, that he wanted most of the ceilings to make a statement. But it's too difficult and expensive to draw all these details in advance. Instead, "You frame the box," he says. "Then you come in here and you start looking at it and you say, 'Well, let's put a coffer or a groin or a dome over this room. How should we do that?' "

From the look of things, the answer is never simple. The frame for the concave octagonal ceiling of the kitchen nook resembles a sturdy wooden spider web. Like the one in the kitchen nook, the vaulted ceiling in the master bedroom is composed of dozens of different-sized wooden slats, each one measured and cut and fit within the intricate pattern.

The upper floor contains three large rooms that open onto a wide corridor. The first two will be bedrooms, each with a prosaic view of the next-door neighbor's property. As if to compensate, one chamber is 16 by 18 and the other is almost 17 by 19. They each possess walk-in closets, full bathrooms, and showy ceilings -- one a "creased dome" and the other a barrel. Choosing the barrel shape was a bit of a gamble, Genovese allows. It means the bed will have to be placed against the far wall in the center of the arch. "There's no other place for it to go in the room now," he says. Any other spot would look odd. "But I thought it was the right thing to do."

For the ceiling of the game room, next to the barrel-vaulted bedroom, Genovese is creating a recessed panel -- roughly square but with the corners clipped off. "It's been laid out so if you want to put a pool table there, it will fit [under the panel]." In addition to accommodating a full-size pool table, the room will have some other nifty features. On an inner wall, glass doors will open onto a hand-forged iron "Juliet balcony" overlooking the family room, a feature suggested by Castillero. More glass doors on one of the game room's outer walls will open onto an octagonal deck commanding the most wondrous views on the property, and an ornamental iron spiral staircase will connect the upper deck to the back yard. Genovese has decided the game room should have a "convenience center," including a small refrigerator, a sink, and cabinets. "Because I think if you're up here, you want access to that." He thinks "the combination of this room plus this deck makes this a nice family house. You have two beautiful bedrooms up here. So the kids can occupy these bedrooms, use the game room, and come right down on the spiral staircase. They don't have to go through the main entrance of the house."

Downstairs, Genovese has just incurred another expense he didn't foresee. He's going to rip out the two posts supporting the overhang outside the living room and replace them with an enormous beam. "Architecturally, it's sounder to have the posts. They make the house look better when you're standing out in back. That's why they were put in there originally. But from the inside, we didn't like them. When you walk in the front door, it's too busy."

Making the fix will cost about $2500. "Some things on paper just get by you." The grand staircase is another perfect example. "There was nothing wrong with that staircase. But when we saw how it looked when you would be coming down it, it was awful. It would have made you feel claustrophobic, as if you were being directed into a wall." Changing that was even more expensive than eliminating the posts, he says. "We had to go through re-engineering because that wall next to the staircase was holding the second floor up."

Other workers besides the framers have been toiling at the site over the past few days. A plumber has been installing waste lines and vents. Masons have begun building the fireplaces that will command attention in the living room, the master bedroom, and the family room: stacking and mortaring concrete blocks and lining the cavities with fire bricks. Genovese and his team have also begun dickering with the heating and air-conditioning subcontractor. Figuring out where to run the ductwork is always a headache, according to Genovese. "He needs a lot of access to run the ductwork so that the house will be comfortable and efficient when it's completed." On the other hand, no one likes to see the grills. "So you're always arguing," says Genovese. "If you did what the heating and air contractor wanted to do, the house would be ugly." At this point, "We've had a preliminary meeting with him, and he's gone back to the drawing board."

Planning the electronics

January 9, 2003

With Christmas and New Year's Day behind them, the tradesmen have been making steady progress. The colonnade outside the back of the living room has been ripped out and replaced with the enormous beam. Meanwhile, the front entrance has become more shrouded and imposing with the framing of a 4-foot-long, 12-foot-tall arched passage attached to a 10-foot-tall arched doorway. The indoor fireplaces are almost complete. By the end of this afternoon, all the rough plumbing will be in. Now Genovese is turning his attention to the mansion's electronics.

He and Garner have been meeting this morning with representatives of Advantage Security and Multimedia, one of the firms bidding to provide the specialized wiring (as opposed to the standard electrical connections). Advantage started as a security company, Genovese explains. "But they've grown into full-house electronics. That's a big market. The prices keep coming down.... They're falling like a rock. It's like the computer industry."

At site 151, Genovese wants to install certain minimum levels of electronic sophistication and give the future owners the capacity to add more if they want. "You know how you walk into a house and you see a Nutone intercom system, where you go up to the wall and push a button and it talks all over the house? Well, I'm not going to put that in here." He wouldn't want one in his own house; the technology is too primitive, he thinks. Instead Genovese's planning to install a $4000 phone system that will provide both intercom and security functions. The occupants will be able to pick up a receiver and dial a number to call another phone in another room in the house, he says. "Or you get a phone call, you put them on hold, hit the other line, and the person will pick it up somewhere else in the house." When the front doorbell rings, the occupants will be able to pick up any phone in the house and talk to the bell ringer.

This house won't be sold as "a true smart house," like his own home-to-be, Genovese acknowledges. He's installing fiber-optic cabling in his own house and says it will have everything anyone could want: automated window and shade openers, a movie theater, electronic lighting controls, external security cameras. He'll be able to turn on his spa while driving home, and it will be hot for his arrival. But Genovese says he can't predict the tastes of the future owner of the house at site 151. He's compromising, using category 6 wiring -- double the capacity a standard tract home would have -- but not putting in the fiber optics. "I'm going to give them the pipes in the walls and the wires in the walls so that they can go ahead and add whatever electronics they want. I'm trying to give them the maximum flexibility at a cost basis I can afford. Then the homeowner can move in and relatively easily make this into a totally smart house."

He's taking a similar approach to the "entertainment center" in the family room. To be erected against the wall that faces the kitchen, it will include a cabinet big enough to accommodate a 65-inch television set, the largest on the market today. Genovese says the cabinet will be set up "so you can put all your component parts in there." It will be wired to junction boxes in the ceiling so that the occupant can install surround-sound speakers. But Genovese won't purchase the TV itself or decide whether its signals will come from a cable or satellite feed. He won't buy the speakers. "Speakers are a personal choice," he declares.

It may be a month before the electronics wiring begins. In the meantime, Genovese is having Advantage install a central vacuum-cleaning system. That's old-fashioned technology, he says with a dismissive wave of his hand. "Just a bunch of pipes running through the house with receptacles on the wall so you can plug a hose on them and vacuum the floors." (The vacuum's central pump will be located in the garage.)

Three months after they started, the framers are still at work; Genovese keeps adding touches. He's decided to create decorative niches on either side of the fireplace in the living room instead of the cabinets he originally had envisioned. This house will have plenty of custom cabinetry. Genovese and the cabinetry subcontractor have already hashed out many of the details.

The roof tiles have arrived

January 24, 2003

Three trucks loaded with slate tiles left Vermont on January 6. They pulled into Cielo last week, and now three dozen pallets of the material are strewn around the grounds. On each pallet, layers of tiles have been stacked vertically, like crackers in a box. Their basic color is gray, but closer inspection reveals a rainbow of green, charcoal, and violet shadings.

"I probably had 500 pieces of slate in the form of samples," Genovese says. Working with the quarry personnel, "We kind of gerrymandered the roof together.... There's a certain percentage of one color, another percentage of a second color, another percentage of a third." Genovese has furthermore ordered the tiles in three different thicknesses. The workers will lay out a couple of mixtures on the breezeway near the front of the property. The roof there is easiest to scrutinize from the street above. "And who knows?" Genovese adds, looking mischievous. "I might like what we come up with the first time." If not, he'll make them try other combinations.

None of this will happen right away. First the tiles must be placed upon the tarpaper-covered wooden roof and left to sit there for a few weeks. "It's a test," Genovese explains. "The roof is designed to hold a certain amount of weight. So you put all that weight up there and make sure that all the trusses and everything are holding it." The house's ceilings must all remain open so that the supporting members can be scrutinized. Only after the county building inspectors sign off on the roof can the insulation and drywall begin to go in.

There's a bigger change apparent on the outside of the house. Over the past few weeks, four concrete-block chimneys have been climbing skyward. They've now reached their full height and have been topped with "French-curved" chimney caps. The last chimney and fireplace to be completed occupy a little outdoor courtyard in front of the august entryway. An ornamental-iron balcony will overlook this front courtyard. Asked if he envisions this space to be used for entertaining, Genovese looks dubious but allows as how it might. Its main purpose, though, is to serve as yet another buffer between the mansion and the outside world.

Inside, the heating, ventilation, and air-conditioning contractor has been hard at work installing flexible ducts that are a foot in diameter and covered in a material that shines like polished silver. One could imagine that the walls have been invaded by festive giant worms.

The electronics start going in

February 6, 2003

It's a cool, breezy day, clear, but with a thin layer of clouds moving in. Advantage, which Genovese has chosen to supply the security and home-electronics systems, has sent a young man named Lance Booth to begin that work today. Another Advantage employee installed the vacuuming system yesterday. That took only six hours, but Booth thinks his work will require four days. He's planning to put in a lot more wire than he'll probably need; he says sometimes the redundancy proves useful.

Booth's not the only person running wires at site 151. A couple of electricians have been drilling holes through the studs and threading the holes with lines that will carry electricity to all the outlets and fixtures. Those won't go in until the house is almost complete, but the electricians have nailed sky-blue plastic junction boxes at every location where the builders want the plugs and wall sconces and chandeliers to be.

After the first big rain

February 13, 2003

The first big storm of the year moved in Monday (three days ago), and rain poured throughout Tuesday and Wednesday, transforming the back of site 151 into a lake. By this afternoon, a Thursday, most but not all of the water has soaked into the ground. Pools of rain dot the inside of the master bedroom wing as well.

A lot of water blew in sideways through sections of exterior wall that still haven't been enclosed. The timing of this storm must gall Garner, who had hoped that the "wrapping" of the mansion's exterior with waterproofing paper would begin last week. But all the materials didn't arrive until Monday, when the storm's approach was imminent.

Garner's crews did manage Monday to pour an inch-and-a-half-thick layer of lightweight concrete throughout the second floor of the building. The concrete "soundproofs and gives the second floor some stability," Genovese explains. "So when you're underneath it, you don't hear the noise of people walking on a floor." Carpet will later cover it.

The concrete pour also entombed some notes about the electronics system that were scribbled on the wooden subfloor upstairs, much to the dismay of Booth, the installer. "I was supposed to write it all down, but I was in a hurry to get out of here Friday and I forgot. When I came back, I realized, 'Uh-oh.' "

Booth sounds glum for other reasons. He's already been on the job for six days, instead of the four he had anticipated. "This house is killing me," he laments. "It's the ceilings and stuff like that. I can't get any rhythm going. And then there was the rain." He's almost completed the stereo wiring. It runs not only to the home-theater system in the family room but also to speaker outlets in the master bedroom, the master bathrooms, the game room, dining room, living room, and two of the patios. But Booth is still putting in the wires for the security system, as well as for the computer and home-automation systems. In some places, the spaghettilike bundles look like a meal for a giant.

Stucco and drywall

March 6, 2003

All the veins and arteries (the wires and pipe) are now in place, and the house is beginning to acquire skin. Outside, black waterproofing paper has been stapled to every surface, and this has been covered with lath. The even geometry of the chicken-wire squares gives the outside walls a tidy, quilted appearance.

Inside, the insulation crew yesterday filled all the spaces between all the studs with squishy yellow fiberglass. Garner says they've used as much material as anyone ever uses in Southern California (R30 in the ceilings and R19 in the walls). "Insulation is one of those things that's really reasonable. So you might as well overload it."

The drywallers arrived this morning to start hanging Sheetrock. They'll be using panels that are five-eighths of an inch thick, versus the more common half-inch-thick variety. "It's funny, but if you go into two houses, one built with each, the one with the five-eighth-inch stuff will just feel more solid," asserts Garner.

He points out that if the insulators have a half-day's start, the drywallers can never catch up to them. Hanging and finishing the drywall is a time-consuming project. The panels of Sheetrock must be cut into pieces that will fit not only on the walls but also around all the windows and doors and into the fancy ceiling designs the framers have created. The edges of each piece must be screwed to the underlying studs and blocks to secure it into place. Doing this makes each room look as if it finally has real walls. They're not walls that can yet be painted; the screws and rough seams would show. The cheap way to hide them is to stick the strips of paper known as drywall tape over them and spray plaster over the whole surface. But that rough-and-ready approach would never do for the mansion at site 151. All the screws and seams in its walls will instead be taped and plastered and sanded to a glassy smoothness -- so new and perfect that they will lack the venerable old feeling coveted by Genovese for this building. They'll thus receive a light final coating of plaster that will incorporate subtle blemishes known as "holidays." The end result will look as if the walls were built 100 years ago, the old-fashioned way, out of lath and plaster. (Genovese says he can't actually build them out of lath and plaster because the craftsmen who once did that have all but disappeared, especially on the West Coast. "That's an example of the unions pricing themselves out of the market," he grumbles.)

Like the walls, the fireplaces are evolving. This morning workers are spreading a coat of uncolored stucco over the concrete-block fireplace façades in the family room and the master bedroom. "We're going to plaster those so they look just like the walls," Garner explains. "We have to smooth the block out so that it can get that same kind of drywall texture."

The floor of each shower in the house has been hot-mopped with an expensive waterproofing mixture of tar and fiberglass in preparation for the tile soon to come. And the house's cabinets have been ordered, according to Garner. "We're trying to prepare ourselves for everything that comes on the back end of the drywall." That's probably five weeks away, but then "everything can happen," Garner says. "This is the slow phase, coming up to that."

Outside, piles of slate tiles have been deposited in clusters all over the roof, and the valleys where leaks would seem most likely to develop have been lined with protective metal flashings. Weeks ago, Genovese decided to use copper for the metal. "It will all be copper -- all the flashings, the roof edgings, the nails.... See, you can't mix metals. If you do, the two metals will oxidize. Once you make a commitment, that's the deal. You go all the way." Genovese reflects, "I could have used aluminum, like everyone else." That would have cost half as much. But he says using copper should avoid future staining problems, plus it will look prettier. Genovese sees this choice fulfilling the commitment that he made up front to high quality. "It finishes the house off. It solidifies the infrastructure, as well as it's visible."

Another highly visible component has arrived on the scene: the mansion's front door. It's a steel arch, almost ten feet tall and four feet wide. Antique glass will later be sandwiched between the filigree of bronze-colored metal that fills up its central area. Garner says it cost "about $7000," a relative bargain as opulent doors go. "We were getting prices up to $15,000 and $16,000. And at the last house I just finished before starting these, the front door cost $22,000. They can get pretty pricey -- but they can make a house."

Although the door has already been hung, it's going to have to be replaced, Garner discloses. The manufacturers "didn't countersink the hinges. They just kind of welded them on top of the jamb and on top of the door.... You couldn't tell until after it was installed, but the door doesn't really close right." In the final two inches, it wants to spring open. Garner says the manufacturer has agreed to send a new door and jamb. "It's too bad. It's a beautiful door," he remarks. But in this of all houses the occupants will want their front door to swing shut, solid and unresisting. "We don't give people spring-loaded doors."

The circus has arrived

March 21, 2003

As Garner hoped, the drywall crew moved fast, completing the job in just two weeks. Two days ago, the tapers showed up.

Many of the interior surfaces of this house are out of arm's reach. Two of the workers have strapped on stilts, on which they stride with a lanky grace. They each carry a three-foot-long tape-dispensing instrument that they call a bazooka. Working it requires a pumping action that's distinctly gunlike.

More fascinating and appalling is the action unfolding under the big top, the 21-foot-tall ceiling of the family room. The tapers have erected a scaffold that comes close to it, but they're not mounting a ladder to get to the top of the scaffold. Instead, they've created a makeshift bridge between the scaffold and the openings of the second-story game room overlooking the family room. A tough-looking young man armed with a bazooka hoists himself through one window and strolls, insouciant, over the eight-inch-wide plank that spans the abyss. His sense of balance is so refined that, once on the scaffold, he makes it look easy to raise the implement over his head and drag out long lines of plaster-backed tape, covering the seams of the drywall. His companion, an older man working on another board balanced between the opening for the Juliet balcony and the scaffold, looks more uneasy. He braces his metal plaster container against the ceiling as he flattens the tape and plaster with a metal trowel. From time to time, he mutters curses in Spanish.

It's a trip that the tapers will have to make several times. This is a multistage process, with sanding interspersed with the taping. Outside, the several steps involved in finishing the exterior walls are also proceeding. Yesterday, workers "scratched" the light concrete bottommost layer of stucco through the openings in the chicken wire. Next week they'll apply the second layer of this concrete, known as the brown coat. (The final colored coat of stucco won't go on until much later.)

But the house is already watertight, Garner points out. Torrential rains poured the previous weekend, and when he walked the house on Monday morning, searching for leaks, "I found only one wet spot. We got the roofer here Monday afternoon, and he took care of it. There was one little crack in the seam." The final covering for the roof has been taken a step closer to completion. Above the breezeway, workers have arranged the slate tiles in two different patterns, and Garner says, "We've decided to go with the one on the left." It's a tighter arrangement that makes the surface appear to undulate a bit more. "It makes it a little rougher looking," says Garner.

With all the taping and stuccowork in progress, the construction site is now as dirty as it will get. Mud-spattered plastic sheets taped to the outside of the windows make it impossible to see out. Heavy black paper has been laid down over the concrete floors to keep them clean, but the paper is littered with drywall tape and dust and gooey plaster drips and other garbage. "This is the messy phase," Garner declares. "Once you get past this stage, then the mess is done. You start finishing it up. Then it goes from just being a house to being the fun part."

Laying out the pool

March 26, 2003

The tapers are sanding now, getting closer to the application of the final overall "texture coat." Garner figures they should finish up in five more days. Then his men will begin installing the first pieces of crown molding that will adorn most of the intersections of the walls and ceilings in this house. This molding, which is made of Styrofoam and in some rooms is more than a foot high, has just begun arriving at the site. "It takes about a week's worth of work before you can actually put it up," Garner says. The pieces must be covered twice with a hard material known as foam coat. The texture can be made to resemble wood, but "we're going to do it so it looks like plaster." Garner says "another coat of all-purpose mud [plaster] and then a topping coat" will go on top of the foam coat. The crown molding installation will take months, he predicts. "There's a lot."

Besides the taping, two other activities are taking place this afternoon. Garner's masons are getting ready to cover part of the front of the house with stone. They'll be using the same buff- and rust- and gray-colored rock with which they built the low wall six months ago, applying it to the three single-story façades that face the street. By the time the masons finish, those walls will look like bulwarks. Today the men are preparing the concrete in a little portable mixer. They will create a concrete base from which the stone will come up to surround an arched window set within each of the three façades.

Garner is on the site this afternoon to tackle another task: laying out where the 45-foot-long pool will be dug. In the past, Castillero hired pool subcontractors. "But we found we were overseeing them anyway," Garner says. So now Castillero employees do this work. The first step in creating the pool at site 151 has already been taken: the landscape architect has produced drawings indicating where it should go. As planned, the pool will be seen by any visitor who walks in the front door and looks ahead through the glass wall at the end of the living room.

But Garner's got a feeling Genovese and Castillero may want to shift the pool closer to the western edge of the property. "There's a lot of room back there," the job superintendent notes. For the moment, he's spraying Day-Glo orange paint on the bare dirt to mark the location specified in the plans. The other two men will stop by later this afternoon to appraise it.

Wherever it winds up, the plans call for the pool to be fed by a waterfall flowing out of a rocky (manmade) hillock. A 15-foot-wide spa will adjoin the main swimming area, as will a "Shamu shelf." But there won't be any diving board. "Everybody's been sued out of that business," Garner says. "There's only one company in the whole country that makes them." He says when he was building a pool at his own house, "I explored the possibility. But for a board that used to cost, like, $300 or $400, they were quoting me around $1800."

Plastering is almost complete

April 9, 2003

A solitary worker is still taping the edges of a doorway upstairs, and elsewhere, scattered bits of taping remain to be done. Installation of the stately crown molding has just begun. But the spattered black paper has been removed from the floors, and the plastic sheets have been stripped from the windows. With those two simple steps, the house at site 151 at last appears almost livable.

Outside, under a sun that feels relentless at 10:30 in the morning, two men are affixing slate tiles to the carport roof. It looks to be a job for someone with good knees. Several dozen tiles have been piled up near the roof peak, and the lead worker -- a tall, lean, graying Hispanic man -- selects two or three at a time from the pile. He inches down the steep slope, squats, and taps copper nails through holes pre-drilled in the tiles. Then he stands and does it again. And again. And again.

The work of the masons is less comprehensible. They've completed one of the rock façades, but they're only halfway up the central one, and as they work on it, the complexity of their task becomes clear. It would be easy to make the wall look thicker if they were affixing evenly shaped concrete blocks to it, but instead, they're drawing their materials from a pile of broken, scabrous rocks. To mark the planes they need to fill in, the masons have tied strings to fixed points around the original façade. They then select rocks of the right size and color to create the more-or-less even plane of what will be the new façade, filling in behind that with smaller stones and concrete. Sometimes to get a stone that's the size or shape, they have to split larger rocks with a mallet and a chisel. From time to time, they check their work with a level.

Inner trimmings

April 23, 2003

Nothing has happened yet on the pool. Garner was right. When Genovese and Castillero came over, Genovese declared that the pool should move west by about 20 feet -- exactly what Garner had predicted. "It just felt like it needed to move that much," the superintendent says with a self-deprecatory shrug. The three men have also decided to lower the southwesternmost piece of the property, the part just beyond where the pool will go, by a bit under 2 feet. This will improve the view of Rancho Santa Fe's community reservoir (known as Lago Lindo) in the distance. On the lowered terrace, "We're going to do a little sitting area, with probably a fire ring," Garner says. The addition has changed the design of the pool, so excavation probably won't start for another two weeks. "I'd love to see it happen sooner," Garner murmurs.

The roofers have finished laying slate tiles over the breezeway, the toy-car garage, and the guest room. From the street, the finished roof expanses look like snakeskin. Now the roofers are toiling on the sections over the study and gym. It won't be possible to complete the roof until after the final stucco coat is applied, a few months down the road, so Garner says Castillero has decided to let two slate specialists work alone, rather than calling in a large crew. "The thing about a slate roof," Garner notes, "is if you don't lay it just right, it'll start to look too uniform, too much like just a standard concrete roof." There's an art to choosing the mix of colors and thicknesses. "Since there's not a huge hurry to get it finished right away, we get more control having just two guys do it."

Inside the mansion, many of the walls and ceilings have received a coat of creamy paint, a shade that Garner says is called Sandy Lane. "It's a good warm base. I'm sure a lot of the rooms will stay that color, but if we go up or down a shade in some of the areas, it's still a good base to start with." Besides reducing the dust, getting paint on the walls was also a high priority because the cabinet installation should start tomorrow, Garner explains.

With the addition of the paint, the mansion's interior suddenly feels clean, austere, luminous. All but two of the interior doors have been hung over the course of the past two weeks, and these also change the feeling of the place. All are regal objects, one and three-quarter inches thick (the dimension of an external door on a more basic house) and seven or eight feet tall, with arched tops.

To Garner though, "Everything looks really plain in the stage the house is at right now. Really monotone," he declares. His men are about to begin applying the finishes that he predicts will "bring it all to life." The coffered ceiling in the kitchen, already a complex, three-dimensional grid, will get "antiqued," Garner offers as one example. "That really highlights it. We'll put another color over it and do kind of a brushing and sponging technique." This will make the ceiling look old, and it "really brings out all the detail."

Elsewhere, almost all the heavy crown molding has been installed, and now the workers are starting to put in the baseboard, which is almost three times the height of humbler varieties. "We're bullnosing all the corners," Garner says with a note of pride. The outer corners of all the walls in the mansion have been given the rounded bullnose treatment that is common in higher-end homes, but Garner says builders often cut corners -- literally -- when it comes to the baseboard, rather than buying the necessary bullnosed connector pieces. "They're about ten bucks apiece. That's why a lot of builders don't use them. But you can see the difference when you do," he says.

The superintendent comments that the dozen or so men at work in the house now are all Castillero employees, and they'll be doing most of the work from here on out. "Everybody does a little bit of everything, and some guys key in on different items. They might be working with wood one day and tile the next."

Cabinets going in

May 1, 2003

Garner describes as "European-style" the cabinets that have appeared in many of the rooms of the house. Altogether they cost about $100,000, and Garner says they'll look as if they cost even more by the time the workers get done with them. The exterior wood is alder, in its unstained state a sandy color with a slight pink cast. The interiors are a wood-grained melamine the color of dark maple. "Usually people just do white interiors, but it's a nice upgrade to go to the wood grain." Screwing and nailing and gluing the cabinet bodies into place is just the first step, Garner warns. "They have so far to go. All kinds of different crowns and fluting will be added." Then they'll undergo a multistep staining process designed to make them look antique.

Dramatic changes are evident in the bathrooms, where tilework is beginning to cover the shower walls and the walls surrounding the bathtubs. For this work, Castillero is using travertine and tumbled marble in shades of gold and tan, with accent pieces in contrasting colors. Garner wrinkles his nose at any suggestion that the bathroom tilework is the same throughout the house. That's what you would find in the "production" houses lower down the hill, he says. Here the designs are different in every room, he says. "And in the master suite, we'll tie everything together."

Outside, the roofers have worked their way up to the highest point of the building's central section, and the stonework below them is nearing completion. The masons will finish grouting the three rock façades, and they've also erected two four-and-a-half-foot-tall walls at the entrance to the inner front courtyard, yet another layer of fortification.

Underneath the roofline of the breezeway, there's evidence of a tough decision involving the mansion's fake corbels. A corbel is a supporting architectural member that comes out through a wall. In traditional construction, they help to hold up the roof, but they have no structural purpose in this home. "They're just aesthetic," Genovese says -- another evocation of France Past. To create the corbel illusion, the builders are using pieces manufactured by an Escondido stucco company. Garner smiles when he picks one up. Although it looks like a section of heavy wood beam, it's lightweight: Styrofoam, covered with a frosting of concrete. "They're hard as rocks," Garner says, and ingrained with a realistic wood pattern.

The question confronting the builders now is what color the fake components should be painted. Five corbels, painted in hues ranging from gray to forest green, have been installed under the roofline, and Garner just ordered three more colors this morning. "The rock has a certain color to it, and the roof has a certain color to it. So when you put something that looks gray against it, it may look blue or green. Or something green looks bright green. We're still fine-tuning that."

The first realtors have begun walking through the house, Garner mentions, adding that they've been enthusiastic. He feels confident that the mansion at site 151 will sell before it's finished. "They always have." He laughs.

Shelves and trim

May 15, 2003

Curlicues and French-fluted legs and baroque scrolls have sprouted all over the cabinets, which have also been topped with dental molding and wooden beading and crowns. Many of the wooden gewgaws are prefabricated appliqués that look carved but in fact have been glued and nailed on. But the cabinet doors behind the six-and-a-half-foot-long bar that adjoins the family room bear two clusters of grapes that were carved by hand at the cabinet factory.

Genovese has bestowed other attentions on the bar area. It connects to the mansion's eight-foot-long and five-foot-wide wine-storage room, which has no door at the moment but will get one later to contain the well-chilled air it will acquire. The wall at the back of the "cellar" (as Garner calls it) holds floor-to-ceiling crisscrossing wooden wine bins. Copious amounts of additional space for wine bottles has been created along one of the side walls. This includes pull-out racks in which Genovese plans to screw real wooden wine cases. "We actually saw that in a magazine and said, 'What a cool idea,' " Garner confesses. "So Ralph went down to the Rancho Santa Fe Market and said, 'I'll buy six cases of wine if you'll give me the boxes.' " Garner says the lower cabinets in the cellar will eventually be topped with a stone counter -- "nice and high for opening wine bottles. And we'll probably finish the walls in such a way to really make them look like a wine cellar," with rough plaster or stone or large bricks.

One of the few gaping holes remaining inside the mansion -- the doorway that overlooks the family room from the second-story game room -- has been plugged with wooden French doors inset with panes of glass. (Its Juliet balcony has not yet arrived.) But a new, late-coming hole has appeared almost directly across from where the balcony will go. Garner explains that once the massive wooden "entertainment center" cabinet was set up against that wall, Genovese decided the three windows high above it "just didn't look right." He ordered a fourth window to be added, with the TV cabinet centered beneath the apertural quartet.

In the back yard, a six-foot-wide bite out of the ground is a harbinger of the impending pool construction. Beyond and slightly below it, the little terrace for the fire ring has been leveled. You can stand there and almost imagine you're on the bow of an ocean liner heading for the distant blue horizon.

Finishing the cabinets

May 23, 2003

"We got rid of our dirt pile yesterday," Garner exults. "This is the first time we've seen the front yard!" He was able to have the pile removed because the pool excavation out back is now complete. "Now that the pool's dug, we've separated out all the rock we want to keep. The pool will get a lot of rock. There's a big waterfall, and the back wall will be all rock." More will go on the outdoor barbecue and other areas. "We need as much rock as we can get our hands on," Garner says. But with the rock now segregated, the rest of the dirt is superfluous.

The excavation site, though large, is crude. To refine the pool's boundaries, flexible "bender board" will have to be nailed to posts driven into the ground. Then "we can have the guys come out and put all the rebar in," Garner explains. "And then the plumbers will come in and do all the pipes." After the plumbing and electrical infrastructure has been laid, "We can get it inspected. And after inspection, it's ready for gunite."

The inside of the house is wearing a new perfume. The pungent scent of lacquer heralds the ongoing transfiguration of the cabinets. All the cupboards in the second-story rooms have been coated with a conditioner, then stained a rich chestnut brown. A sealing compound has also been applied to them, and they've been hand-sanded, a step that has left them covered with a hazy white film. After this is cleaned off, a darker stain will be rubbed into the cabinets' grooves and edges in order to make them look like heirlooms. They'll be sprayed with a final clear lacquer, a semi-gloss finish that will look too new and glossy at first, according to Garner. "But within three weeks or so, as it cures, it softens up."

The painting subcontractor is doing this work, while Garner's crew has beavered away constructing shelves and drawers and other storage compartments in the pantry and closets. For much of this work, they're using medium-density fiberboard, a dense, strong artificial material that "paints up beautifully," Garner says. "It's a really versatile product. We buy it in sheets, and we can shape it and do whatever we want with it."

The first hint of the mansion's finished flooring has appeared on the grand staircase. On the end of one plaster-spattered plywood step, the workers have cut and shaped several pieces of travertine tile. It's a prototype for the stonework that will cover the end of each tread; carpet will run up the center. The second story of the house, except for the bathrooms, will be carpeted, while almost every part of the first floor will be covered with the creamy stone.

This morning Garner hazards a guess that the mansion will be finished sometime in October. "It depends," he says. "Somebody could walk in tomorrow and buy the house. And they may want to just paint the walls and be done with it." At the other extreme, "We've had people buy houses who want to move walls.... We built one spec house where they had us tear out all the marble flooring and put down saltillo tiles." If the buyer wants to pay for it, Garner says, Castillero Design and Construction will make any changes anyone can dream up.

One final door

June 6, 2003

Saws are screaming. In the living room, a worker is cutting pieces of tile for the mosaic taking shape within "her" bathroom. From the garage, a river of small wooden trim pieces flows. After three months of waiting, Garner yesterday received his replacement for the defective front door and had it installed. Now all the doors are up save one, a self-closing fire door for the passage between the house and the garage. This is a turning point, according to the construction superintendent. As soon as that last door goes in, his crew can start bringing in all the more expensive items -- appliances and chandeliers and the like -- and locking up the house at night.

Colored chimneys

June 18, 2003

In preparation for the potential buyers-to-come, someone has nailed the mansion's street number onto wooden stakes next to the curb. As if waving attention-getting arms, all four chimneys have received a cheery coat of yellow stucco, Genovese's final choice for the exterior color.

The decision turned out to be a nightmare, the owner says. The first hue he and the builders selected was a neutral taupe, but once they applied a sample to one of the outside walls, Genovese thought it looked too pink. He says at first he and the builders weren't trying to coordinate the stucco color with the stonework, but then they changed their minds, so more possibilities went up on the wall. "We also got ourselves in a little bit of a pinch because the two houses next to us are basically the same [golden] color family," Genovese says. "We don't want to be like them. And yet -- we wanted to be like them, if you will." He wound up preferring a creamy yellow tone that turned out to be discontinued. He chuckles. "We resurrected it from the manufacturer." With the stucco-color decision behind them, Genovese, Castillero, and Garner are still waffling over the paint color for the exterior trim. "That's actually been about ten different colors," Genovese says. "We're back-and-forthing because we've all got our opinions and we're trying to come to a consensus, but eventually I'm going to make a statement that the consensus no longer applies."

Coloring the outside of the mansion is one of the few big tasks that remain to be done. Another is setting all the pieces of stone trim that have been delivered to the site. They're another example of trompe l'oeil at site 151, not made of stone at all but rather cast from concrete that's been poured into molds to make it look like stone. To heighten the illusion, the fabricators have hand-chiseled many of the pieces to be used around the fireplaces, windows, fences, and elsewhere. The trim adds heft and solidity and substance, Garner says. "You drive through this whole development and you will not see that much precast on any other house," he contends. "I go through every open door I can to see what everybody else is doing. And I always tap on the fireplaces. A lot of people are just doing cast fiberglass, but the precast concrete is the upper end. It not only looks solid, it is solid."

Still another big item on the to-do list is completion of the pool and landscaping, but this has temporarily stalled at the county building department. "Every step you take, you need to go back and get it approved -- even though it was all approved originally!" Genovese fumes. "Your children will see that they can't make a move without getting permission from the government. We're gradually progressing down that road to either socialism or communism."

Raising the bar

July 1, 2003

On the walls of the guest bathroom off the living room, an intense butterscotch color has appeared. It's not ordinary paint but a new "Venetian plaster" material that can be polished to a finish that resembles marble. Both Garner and Castillero are smitten with it; they've each used it in their own personal homes, and Genovese is impressed too. It could be just the thing for the study.

The study has been troubling him. It's a room that could tip the balance in someone's decision to buy this house. It shouldn't be too plain, Genovese thinks, so for days he's had the carpenters cutting lengths of wood trim and fiberboard, nailing them to the walls to create wainscoting. The men have been experimenting with the pattern of the panels, and Genovese has also been vacillating about how they should be finished. He had both the cabinets and the doors in this room made of stain-grade wood, but now he's resisting darkening them. He thinks a gloomy wooden study is a cliché. "Everybody's doing that." As an alternative, he's thinking about using an off-white shade of the Venetian plaster on the wall panels and antiquing the wood around them to match.

He's also toying with the idea of adding decorative panels to the doorway between the living room and the dining room. "I don't have to do it," he points out. "It'll cost me hundreds of dollars. But I intentionally decided to raise the bar here."

Why? "First of all, I just want to be proud of it," Genovese answers. He says another reason is that he and his wife will be living on this street, and he's hoping that as other people build on the empty lots, they'll be inspired to meet the highest possible construction standards. "At this point, everybody thinks Davidson [the developer building "production homes" down the hill] is Cielo. The fact of the matter is, this is Cielo here. This is the crème de la crème. But people won't recognize it until you show them the type of home you're putting up here."

Genovese says a third consideration is that he wants to sell the house for close to $4 million. He's come to believe that, right now in San Diego County, between 6500 and 8500 square feet is "the size range that works best for a house that's going to be sold for between two million and four and a half million dollars." But even houses with the same square footage can vary by close to $2 million -- within the same development. The desirability of the lot accounts for some of the difference, but the rest of it is "the kinds of amenities you're going to include," he asserts.

"Right here in Cielo, if you go down to Davidson over there, you can find a 6200-square-foot house that's almost the same size as the one we're putting up the hill there." But the price difference between them will be $1.8 million, Genovese says. That's because the cheaper one is "a stripped-down house. It's got some sizzle, to get people interested. But the truth of the matter is, it's got cheap windows, cheap everything. There are no 8- to 12-inch-thick walls." They're all 4 and 6 inches thick -- the same as those in any ordinary tract home. "The hallways, instead of 48 inches, are 36 inches. So when you walk through them, you feel it." When you walk down the stairs in his houses, the descent will be "nice and comfortable," Genovese boasts. "Theirs will be steeper. Those are all the little things your average person feels when they're inside the place. They may not know what they're feeling, but it all contributes to the value of the house."

The thought of not building storage structures into the large walk-in closets off the master bedroom at site 151 repulses Genovese. A house of this quality demands such customization, he asserts, and no closet has gotten more of it than "hers." In the past few weeks, the carpenters have been loading the spacious room with an overabundance of hanging racks and cabinets and shoe cupboards and wide flat drawers, all fabricated by the Castillero crew and painted silky white. In planning it, Genovese says, "You say to yourself: what does a woman usually have? Lots of pants and shirts. If we were back East, we'd have to give her more room for coats and long dresses. But living in this climate, she's got an awful lot of two-piece units, so we've given her a lot of shelf pole." Both sides of the closet door have been covered with mirrors. She can study her appearance both coming and going.

Genovese's thinking about the outdoor living spaces is still evolving, but some work is underway. On the least-exposed corner of the property -- the eastern side of the house outside the family room -- the masons have built rocky walls to enclose the ugly machinery that must be stored somewhere on the property: the pool's gas heater and pump, air-conditioner compressors, and the like. The original plans called for an outdoor barbecue to be erected on the patio near these walls, "But we decided that was stupid," Genovese says. "That's too far away from the kitchen." Instead the barbecue will materialize next to a kitchen window that can function as a pass-through. Genovese has also decided that only the far side of the spa will have an infinity edge. "Not the pool. We're going to have a raised beam around the pool." He thinks this will be safer and also, "I just want to be different. I'm so tired of all the infinity-edged pools. They're all like cookie cutters."

Kitchen countertops are in

July 17, 2003

To top off the rich, dark lower cabinets that line the kitchen walls, Genovese has chosen a topaz-colored granite known as Desert Amarillo. Charcoal veins run through the stone, which has a lower-luster "honed" finish instead of being polished to a high gloss. The fabricators have used three thicknesses of the material to create the edges of the countertops; this gives them an unnatural appearance of bulk and solidity. The countertops are in place now, and the kitchen's two undermounted porcelain sinks are set (a double-bowled main sink and a small prep bowl set into the mammoth island).

The first floors in the mansion to receive their final floor covering are the bathrooms in each of the upstairs bathrooms. The builders have used a 12-inch-square tile made of a tumbled travertine known as Ancient Durango.

The pool is lined with rebar

July 31, 2003

Few changes are taking place at site 151 these days, but one occurred yesterday when the crew arrived to install the rebar in the pool. They fabricated the intricate framework of metal in one day, then returned this morning to redo the spa, lowering it by six inches. "It was blocking a little more of the view than we liked," Garner explains.

He notes with satisfaction that almost all the precast concrete has now been set in place. It surrounds the three front windows set within the rock façades, and it clothes the fireplaces. It crowns the roof edge of the kitchen nook (on top of which a deck will be created), and it decorates the columns outside the family room. At the entrance to the front door, curved pieces have been set in a jigsaw puzzle of concentric arches, as if to defy anyone passing through not to think of European cathedrals. Nowhere do the castings look like bourgeois concrete, but rather they look like patrician limestone. Considering that their sole function is cosmetic, it's amazing how weighty and monumental this window-dressing makes the building feel.

All the house's interior walls, windows, doors, and trim now wear at least one coat of paint, but much more painting remains to be done, outside and in. For one thing, Genovese has decided the dining room walls should bear the same butterscotch-colored Venetian plaster that was used in the guest room. Workers have applied a three-foot-square patch of it. "We put it up to make sure everyone liked it," Garner says.

He has the look of a man who can begin to see the light at the end of the tunnel: distant but beckoning. He notes that the last of the plumbing fixtures -- sinks and tubs and the like -- will be installed this week. The stairs will soon be ready to receive their travertine end treatments. A plastic holder containing FREE BROCHURES (PLEASE TAKE ONE) has appeared by the curb in front of site 151. The fliers, the first piece of formal advertising for the property, display a sketch of the finished property and the caption "Almost Heaven."

The final stucco coat

August 3, 2003

On the garage and the two-story portion of the house, the color has changed from dreary concrete gray to sunny final stucco. Genovese estimates it will take three to four weeks to complete this final makeover of the house's outer appearance. Out in back, where long trenches have been dug, things look less finished, not more. But Garner promises that the pool plumbing will go into the trenches fast, and the gunite will follow soon afterwards.

Yellow plastic tape marked "Caution" now blocks off the doorways leading to the living room. That's because a worker has begun to apply a goopy greenish-black crack-isolation sealant to the concrete floor, in anticipation of the stone to come.

Genovese isn't planning to fill most of the mansion with furniture, but among the exceptions are a few faux-antique bureaus that have appeared in some of the bathrooms. Another change is obvious in the kitchen, where workers have installed a fan and vent pipe above the place where the cooktop will go. They've covered the metalwork with a wooden framework that in turn will be blanketed with plaster and tile trim.

Genovese discloses that over the weekend, he and his wife drove down to the EastLake development in Chula Vista to take in this year's "Tour d'Elegance" luxury home tour. He's still shaking his head over what he saw. He thought it all looked mediocre, from the layout to the finishwork. The sconces in the first home on the tour weren't level, he noted. Doors didn't fit. Light fixtures were positioned unevenly. "I went through there with a little notebook. I was going to make notes for ideas and stuff, and when we left, I had just six entries -- and every one of them was about a piece of furniture or an appliance or something. They had nothing to do with the houses. Not one thing." Genovese thinks the worst house was the modern one, where "people had to wait for other people to go up and down the staircases because they were so narrow. Every door in that house was like that!" There's a report that the modern house is already in escrow for $4.4 million, but Genovese can't believe it.

Railings and balconies

August 21, 2003

Another huge pile has appeared in front of the mansion: sand for the gunite to be sprayed tomorrow to form the shell of the pool and spa. The gunite, which consists of a mixture of concrete and fiberglass, will cover not only the steel framework but also the white PVC piping that now snakes through the pool complex. No one is working on the pool this morning, but a solitary man is digging a trench next to one of the kitchen windows. Footings for the outdoor barbecue will go in the trench.

The main action at the construction site is unfolding inside, where a complicated mixture of 12-inch-square and 6-by-12-inch travertine tiles covers the floor in the living room, the "her" bathroom, and much of the central corridor that runs through the long axis of the mansion. At first glance, the mix of tiles appears random, but "if you look at it long enough, you can pick out the pattern," Garner says. "Every 16 pieces, it repeats." In every room that's been tiled, the travertine has a paradoxical effect: it warms and amplifies the ambient light and at the same time makes the room seem colder and more formal.

The shower intended for the man of the house is now complete, and it's almost Roman in its splendor. More than six feet long, five feet wide, and eight and a half feet tall, it boasts two entrances, each sealed with a door made from a single piece of glass that swings both inwards and outwards. A piece of plastic along the bottom makes the doors sigh softly as they open and close. Soothing beige, brown, and golden stone cut in a multitude of sizes covers the inside of the bathing area, where both handheld and stationary showerheads have been mounted to the wall. In addition, a circular "rain head," ten inches in diameter, hangs overhead. "It's pretty much gonna get you wet from every angle," Garner notes.

The superintendent mentions that he went out and jumped on the metal balcony that at last has been hung outside the French doors of the game room, overlooking the family room. "It's solid. I gave it the big-guy test." On either side of the balcony there are windows, which have received matching metalwork in the shape of window planters. And workers are beginning to solder the framework for the railing on the grand stairway. "All of that will get a real nice finish on it," Garner promises. "We may do a faux finish that's more in the silver and gold family so it doesn't look so massive."

Something green

September 3, 2003

Bare dirt and stone and concrete and wire and wood and plaster and metal have been the predominant materials at site 151 for so long that it comes as a shock to see the cluster of greenery near the front of the property this morning. The cluster includes three substantial olive trees in planter boxes, as well as pots containing a variety of common bedding plants: daylilies, white and lavender lantana, bougainvillea, Texas privet, oleander, pittosporum. Work on the landscaping has finally begun.

With the last of the stucco color applied, the roofers have been able to return. Only a few patches of roof still require tiling, and one of the roofers predicts this work will be finished in a week. Today, they're working on the top of the awning in back of the living room. They can gaze down upon the newly gunited swimming complex, which Garner will allow to cure for a few weeks before applying the final plaster. In the meantime, it looks dark and raw, like an industrial installation. A large puddle of greenish water occupies the deepest area.

Work on the travertine floor indoors is still in progress. A tile setter in the dining room looks as if he's working on a giant jigsaw puzzle, laying walnut-colored 12-by-12-inch travertine squares at a 45-degree angle to the surrounding grid of lighter travertine. The kitchen floor, too, still needs to be covered, but the workers have finished setting the tumbled marble backsplash in a rhomboid pattern. Amid the tiles, they've inset little medallions that cost $20 apiece.

For the first time in months, the makeshift wooden railing that has served as a guardrail for the second-story landing overlooking the living room is gone. Ironworkers are preparing the metal bases for the cast-iron railing that's expected to arrive any day now. Along with the metalworkers, painters are toiling inside the house. They have a huge task in the study, where the carpenters have finally stopped fiddling with the rococo paneling and trim. Elsewhere ceilings need to be antiqued, trim touched up. The vast majority of the storage closets have been completed, though. They're pristine sanctuaries harboring shelves that gleam with layers of oil-based paint.

Roof completion

September 10, 2003

The last of the roof tiles have been set in place, and the copper gutters and drainpipes have been hung. They're as shiny and colorful as new pennies.

Today site 151 stinks of steer manure. A pile of it has been deposited in the front yard for use as the trees and shrubs are planted. Everything delivered last week is in the ground, but the slopes at the front and sides of this property still look barren.

Pool trimmings

September 23, 2003

The mansion at site 151 doesn't look like a fortress, but it feels like one, far from the urban hurly-burly. Once you've reached the outskirts of Rancho Santa Fe, you have to enter the gates of Cielo, pass by the guardhouse, drive almost to the top of the mountain, enter the driveway at site 151, and park. Then you make your way on foot through the front gates and the inner courtyard, finally traversing the massive entryway and passing the hulking front door. So much substance has been added to the house over the past 12 months, it's acquired an aura of invincibility. If you owned it, you might kid yourself that nothing bad could reach you here.

Sitting in his trailer up the hill from site 151, Garner hangs up the phone and announces, "We're in the wrong business." The right business, he explains, appears to be fence construction. "For years, I've gotten iron-picket fencing installed for about $20 a foot. But I just got a bid for $45 a foot." At that rate, the back fence for site 151 will cost $12,000, Garner calculates.

County ordinances require that the swimming pool be fenced. To keep the view from the pool unobstructed, Genovese plans to run the iron barrier down each side of his property and along the very back edge at the bottom of the hill. Anyone frolicking in the pool or lounging in the spa probably will never glance down that way, the view toward the ocean is so compelling.

The spa has been designed so that it's set on a wide shelf at the deep end of the pool. Castillero employees are almost finished covering the spa exterior with the same rock mixture that's on the streetside façades and all the low exterior walls. They've also positioned flat slabs of a dark gray granite around the perimeter of the pool to serve as the coping, and one worker is grinding away the inner edges of these slabs; Genovese doesn't want anyone shredding his Speedo as he hauls himself out of the water. On the far side of the pool, boulders and stones have been piled up and grouted into place, and flexible white piping has been threaded among them. Dirt will be built up behind the rock pile and covered with plants "so it'll look like the water is coming from somewhere," explains Mark Strovers, the supervisor who's overseeing this part of the construction. He says he may paint the pipe to hide it, "But usually you can just put a couple rocks in front of it. A lot of times we like to put a rock right in front of the pipe anyway, to help disperse the water."

Strovers learned to build natural-looking pools while working on the East Coast but says he didn't get a chance to use the knowledge much. "I was just building houses." When he moved to San Diego County, however, and went to work for Castillero, his expertise became useful. Strovers is keeping an eye on the outdoor grill taking shape 15 feet away from the pool. Today a mason is building a rock base for it, and Strovers has used wooden slats to rough out the dimensions of the countertop. He's waiting for Garner to approve those dimensions. "The design-as-you-go approach always makes it a little bit slower," he comments. "As opposed to handing me a blueprint and saying, 'Make it just like this.' But that's the fun of doing a custom home. You get a chance to look at it before you do it."

When Garner shows up, he heads straight for the back yard. Most of the activity at site 151 has shifted there; everyone is anxious to get the final outdoor concrete poured. Indoors, the tasks of the two or three men who are still working have shrunk to fussy refinements. In one of the upstairs bedrooms, 67 closet shelves have been stood up alongside the walls, awaiting one more spray-coating with white enamel. In the kitchen, a young carpenter is preparing to install the handles on the cabinet doors. Silvery overtones have already been hand-painted on these. "You don't want a real even finish on them," Garner says; they're supposed to look aged and weathered.

Garner says the railing for the grand staircase and the landing above it will receive similar treatment. Secured into place at long last, the metal railing writhes with curlicues and cloverleaf shapes and leaves at the end of sinuous stems. Garner promises it will come to life even more "once it gets all its colors on it." The effect of the railing's arrival is already dramatic, like a beautiful, well-dressed woman slipping into her lacy nylons and high heels after weeks of going about barefoot.

"We're very close now," Garner reflects. "It's really funny. When you get a house to this point, it looks further away from being finished than it is." From here on in, "basically it's touch-up and cleanup. And once the carpet lays in, it looks like a finished house."

Lighting fixtures

October 3, 2003

The finish job in the study is now complete. The room looks as if it's been carved from old ivory.

Birdcage-style door levers, finished in pewter tones, now open every door in the house; lights have sprouted from the walls and ceilings. Garner says there are 72 fixtures, indoors and out, and that he, Genovese, and Castillero have chosen them all. "Dan [Castillero] does a big part of it. We discuss it and knock it around and get a little input here and there."

To Garner's relief, another bid on the back fencing came in that was $4000 lower than the first one. The fencing hasn't been installed yet, but most of the other structures in back of the house are nearing completion. This morning the workers have been smearing grout into the stones around the swimming pool. The stone fire ring is almost built, and all the barbecue lacks is its countertop. This Genovese has decided should be made from concrete.

In the garage, several hulking Sub-Zero cartons stand like sentries.

Back slab is poured

October 17, 2003

At site 156, which stands across the street from site 151, the land has been leveled, and someone has begun to chalk the outline of a foundation in the dirt. Laborers will be pouring the first concrete here soon, while at Genovese's project, the men are getting ready to create the last such expanses.

In back of the mansion, most of the hardscape went in yesterday. The new deck is a cardboard-colored shade of concrete known as Mesa Buff. To make it look less monotonous, the men have scored it with tools to create various joint lines: long ones around the pool and barbecue area and a smaller grid of two-by-two-foot squares off the family room. The workers are still attending to this area today: wetting the concrete; brushing and polishing and smoothing as it hardens.

The second-story deck that overlooks their ministrations is also almost complete. It's been tiled with charcoal- and gray- and plum-colored slate rectangles, though it still lacks its wrought-iron railing. And yet another outdoor space is under construction this morning. Off the dining room, the house has a small inner courtyard that up to now has held little more than dirt. But now the workers are paving it with more of the natural stone.

The kitchen looks ready to cook in. The only missing appliance is the microwave that will be built into the nook in one of the room's inside corners. Double Thermador ovens have been installed next to the five-burner Thermador cooktop, while on the adjoining wall, the 36-inch-wide Sub-Zero freezer and refrigerator look big enough to hold a couple of aging beef carcasses. In the nearby wine cellar, the workers have installed the wooden cases Genovese acquired from the local market. The lettering and insignias on the cases read "Château Figeac, Château La Dominique, Château Lagrange."

Elsewhere in the house, primping continues. Chandeliers are being suspended from almost every ceiling, while in the master bedroom, two Castillero employees are toiling over the plastered front face of the fireplace. One is rolling on a beige-colored glaze, while the other almost immediately removes most of it, daubing at it with a rag. Their aim is to make the surface look as aged and mottled as some of the ceilings in the house.

Front slab

ready to pour

October 24, 2003

Over the course of the past week, the workers have added:

*

The antique glass that goes between the front door's metal scrollwork

*

More mirrors (gilded, carved, laden with scrolls and wings and floral flourishes) in every bathroom in the house

*

All the posts for the fence around the back of the property

*

The stainless-steel multi-knobbed Grand Turbo grill set into the barbecue center. (The little under-the-counter Sub-Zero refrigerator still needs to be installed.)

*

The iron railing around the second-story deck. (Now only the wrought-iron outdoor spiral staircase is missing.)

*

A prefabricated fountain for the small inner courtyard off the dining room

More profound than any of these changes is what has happened to the large flat area between the front of the house and the steep slope leading up to the street. For more than a year, this area has been a dumping ground, a parking lot, a storage area for building materials and detritus. All that is gone today. In its place, the workers have used stakes and bender board to demarcate a circle, 43 feet in diameter, with another 10-foot circle at its heart. They've laid a network of steel rods within the circles, and they've laid more steel beyond them: in front of the carport and under the breezeway and in front of the two garages; through the stone front gates and all the way up to the front door.

Next week, the final concrete at site 151 will be poured into these steel-reinforced enclosures. Because the area to be covered is so vast and the exposed-aggregate finish that Genovese intends for much of it is so complicated, the work will take place over the course of several days. To achieve the finish, the concrete workers will pour one section, and as soon as it's flat and firm, they'll toss handfuls of pebbles all over it. They'll push the pebbles down until they're below the surface of the concrete. After it hardens some more, the workers will use hoses and brooms and acid to expose just the surface of the embedded pebbles.

There's some urgency to complete this work. On November 5, the Cielo sales office will be hosting a "broker caravan" for local real-estate agents. Nine Cielo properties will be open for inspection that day, and Genovese's house at site 151 will be one of the star attractions.

The end

December 8, 2003

Even though it wasn't quite finished, the house at site 151 won rave reviews from the realtors, according to Genovese and Garner. But the spiral outdoor staircase didn't arrive in time for the big event, and the pool was empty and unplastered. There wasn't time to peel the stickers from the windows and wash them to a state of sparkling clarity. Most of the landscaping was not yet completed.

Today, those chores are done. The pool and spa received their coat of dark gray plaster yesterday, and submerged hoses are filling both with water. By the end of the week, all the dirt will have been filtered out, and the water will appear to be a deep sapphire color.

Inside the mansion, there's a silence that feels eerie and abrupt. Genovese's efforts to sell the place will escalate soon. At some point, someone will buy it and move in. Will they be noisy people who use the large spaces to host frequent, boisterous parties? Will they be generous and kind? Cold and reclusive? Depraved and duplicitous? Will they bequeath the house to their children and grandchildren and great-grandchildren, so that 100 years from now their name will be forever linked to its prodigious presence? Or will the house change hands time and again, augmenting fortunes, ameliorating some disasters, exacerbating others?

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The colonnade outside the back of the living room has been ripped out and replaced with an enormous beam.
The colonnade outside the back of the living room has been ripped out and replaced with an enormous beam.

Ralph Genovese doesn't use the word "mansion" to describe the three dwellings he will construct on a mountaintop in Rancho Santa Fe. He prefers "estate." He's building one of the homes for himself, and he hopes to sell the other two for close to $4 million apiece.

The first to take shape will have 7400 square feet of interior space that will open to ocean views sweeping from Mexico to Catalina Island. In addition to the master-bedroom suite and the kitchen and the family room and the dining and living rooms, this home will have three secondary bedrooms, five full bathrooms, two powder rooms, a study, a gym, a game room, five fireplaces, garage space for four cars, a wine cellar designed to hold 500 bottles, and outdoor-entertaining facilities that would look respectable at a hotel. "Whoever buys these homes is going to get something magnificent," Genovese predicts in late August 2002, on the eve of groundbreaking. "We're gonna do a nice job."

Mason smoothing inner edge of stone pool coping

Genovese has consented to let a reporter follow the construction on the condition that the house, rather than he, be the main subject of the story. His background isn't relevant, he says; he retired from a publishing career in the Chicago area. He has overseen the building of two other custom homes: one in the Midwest and one in Rancho Santa Fe, where he and his wife now reside. From their current home, they can see part of the five square miles that constitute the Cielo development, where Genovese's properties are located. They first got interested about five years ago when they noted increased activity in the area. Around the fall of 1999, the Genoveses got onto the property in a four-wheel-drive vehicle, they liked what they saw, and they closed escrow on the three lots in the late spring of 2001.

You get to Cielo from the commercial zone that's at the center of Rancho Santa Fe by driving east on Paseo Delicias, which soon becomes Del Dios Highway. After about five minutes, you pass the signs for the Crosby, an enclave of 433 homes under construction on 722 acres. The driveway into Cielo is located a few hundred yards farther east on the hilly northern side of the highway. Both "production" and custom-home sections have been designated in this community. In the production areas, three different builders have been erecting some of the priciest tract housing in San Diego County (ranging from $1.6 to $2.5 million). It is in the much larger custom-home section, however, that Genovese bought his property, which includes site 151.

Lots in the custom section cost between $700,000 and $1 million, a sum that gives the buyer title to between one and three acres. That may sound like a lot of land, but much of it consists of hillsides. The level building space at site 151 is an area that's 150 feet wide by 135 feet deep, roughly a quarter of the total property. Genovese will be building one of the first custom homes in the community. Its only predecessors are the four houses that were featured in the luxury home tour sponsored by the San Diego County Building Industry Association in 2001. Site 151 sits between two of those four "Tour d'Elegance" homes and across the street from the other two.

The names of those four -- Bella Cielo, Sotto Il Monte, Villa di Bella Loggia, Palacio Pacifico -- suggest a Mediterranean influence that is echoed in the Italianate guardhouse, located up a long driveway from the road, and in a Romanesque aqueduct, just beyond the guardhouse, that carries water from Lake Hodges to a local reservoir. According to the developer's public relations spokeswoman, the tract homes are supposed to conjure up images of Tuscan hillside villages. Cielo's design requirements allow for some wiggle room, however, and Genovese has taken advantage of this. The style of his own house will be "eclectic Mediterranean," and the one at site 151 will be French.

Genovese contributed to the design of all three houses. It's not hard to do, he suggests, even when you don't know anything about the future buyer. Certain elements must be incorporated because any high-end buyer would expect them: walk-in closets, a kitchen island. Genovese says while planning the Cielo houses, he talked to realtors about buyers' interests, and those conversations confirmed his impression that single-story residences were a hot commodity. The Genoveses' own home at Cielo will occupy just one level. The two spec houses will have limited second stories, "but they're both designed so that the person who buys them can live on one floor. They don't ever have to go to the second floor if they don't choose to."

He says he copied designs: some gleaned while traveling in southern Europe, others from photos. He took his detailed sketches to Dan Castillero, who's been building deluxe houses in San Diego County for more than 25 years. Castillero created detailed construction drawings. His construction company will build all three of Genovese's mansions.

Groundbreaking, August 21, 2002

The beginning looks so simple. Bulldozers have scraped Genovese's ground of its covering of low chaparral. Against the tawny dirt, white chalk lines mark where the walls will rise. Soon activity will burst forth at this site. But today it's flat and empty.

Cool breezes are blowing, moderating the sun's heat. Eight miles away, the ocean is the color of polished turquoise. This is the morning David Westerfield will hear himself declared guilty of murder, kidnapping, and kiddie-porn possession. By the time the verdict is read in downtown San Diego, a single backhoe operator will have gouged out the first trenches in the corner of site 151 that's farthest from the street. The operator figures it will take at least two and a half more days to finish digging where all the lines have been drawn. The stony ground makes the going slow.

But the driver is a methodical man. Over and over again, he brings the backhoe's narrow arm downward to claw into the earth. It's not a tranquil process. Growling engine noises mix with loud metallic clunks and bangs and shiver-inducing scrapes.

When Genovese shows up around 1:30, he jokes that he's feeling numb. He had hoped to start building his other spec home, located up the hill from site 151, almost three months ago. But the grading there is much more complicated than it is at this site, and Genovese has run into delay after delay at the county's building department. "It's a real hassle getting something done here," he complains. "It's unbelievable. Takes months and months and months. There's so much conversation and so much engineering and so much re-engineering. And so much of it is repetitive. Every time you go into County, you're looking at a wait of anywhere from two weeks to five weeks. And they change the rules on the fly."

He has decided to begin the work at site 151 and move on to the second spec house a few weeks later. Despite his frustration with the bureaucrats, he looks relaxed and happy. "You've got to be prepared to work at it. You've got to focus on the goal and go for it. You've got to be diligent."

The first pour

September 27, 2002

Before the first concrete is poured, even though trenches have been dug and lined with planks of wood, even though rods of steel have been run through the trenches and more steel has been laid in a complex lattice across the expanses that the trenches surround, the site still feels like a part of the natural world. Birds and insects and animals might be at home on it.

But once the gloppy concrete has been squirted into the enclosures, once it's been spread out, smoothed, and made flat and featureless, something profound changes. Humans have marked this piece of the earth.

At site 151, this drama begins to unfold at 6:00 a.m. with the arrival of the pump that will help the workers get the concrete where they want it. The pump is mounted on a ten-wheeled truck, and it's attached to what looks like a gigantic boom. As each concrete mixer arrives, it dumps its contents into the back of the truck; then the pump impels the slurry up to the top of the crane and down a pipe that can be directed with a remote-control device. Attached to the pipe is a hose. Today a burly older worker is muscling around the nozzle on the hose to aim the stream of the semi-liquid material.

The workers expect to pour at least 200 yards of concrete -- more than 25 truckloads. Six concrete mixers will share the job of transporting it from an Escondido plant to site 151. After each one dumps its load, it will return for another load, a 90-minute round-trip.

Genovese is on the scene early. Beyond all the permit reviews, a lot of work has already taken place to advance the project to this point. Soil engineers have analyzed the site, which Genovese says "is actually very good to build on. This is solid rock and stone. It's all decomposed granite." A structural engineer has studied the plans and calculated "how much steel to put in and what sort of concrete should be utilized to bear the weight of the house." A plumber has laid out the pipes that will be buried underneath the concrete slab. "That's usually all the drains and the initial gas feed, that kind of stuff," Genovese says.

The soil has been compacted and covered with a layer of sand. Sheets of Visqueen have been placed on top to serve as a barrier against moisture, and more sand has been layered over the plastic. "Then the concrete guys lay all the steel that's in the footings and in the pads," Genovese explains. The concrete being poured today will make the fragile-looking network of steel part of a monolithic structure, massive enough to anchor whatever's built on top of it, an immobile base in the face of wind or shaking of the ground.

When it's first deposited within one of the forms, the concrete looks like loose mud. But a crew of maybe 15 men perform a complex ballet to transform the rough material into a finished product. First they stomp through the muck, using shovels and their rubber-booted feet to spread it out. Several workers scramble to flatten it further. Some drag a long wooden board over it, while others wield a tool that looks like a giant potato masher. Later they switch to using trowels: handheld ones around the edges and a huge one attached to a 20-foot-long pole for the interior expanses. As the concrete firms up, the men continue smoothing and refining, like bakers perfecting the frosting of a cake. What they wind up with is a flat, level surface. It doesn't have to be flawless. None of the concrete poured today will be exposed to the eventual occupant. Every inch will later be covered with stone or carpet.

Watching the men work, Genovese comments on the fact that they're all "of Mexican persuasion." They're all working hard, he notes with approval. "They all could be on the dole. But they're not. They're all working. Making a living. From that perspective, I have a lot of pride in them. They work hard and we didn't have to give it to them." The politicians who want to give government handouts to the poor "are gradually destroying this nation," he thinks. "It really annoys me because I've lived 62 years, and this is a wonderful country. If you can't make it here, you can't make it anywhere. There is no reason why an individual in this country has to be anything other than living a decent life. And yet we have them all around us, because we intentionally make them dependent upon us." It irks Genovese when people assume that wealth results from luck. "There's no such thing as luck," he declares. "You do your homework. You press. And then it appears as if you were lucky." The man who will buy this house from him won't have been lucky, he predicts. He'll be "a smart guy who worked hard and was able to go out and get enough money to buy this house." The concrete laborers might be just as smart, but most of them will throw their money away instead of starting their own businesses, he states. "That's how America has been built: you start your own business when you know your trade well enough. But you've also got to know how to sell. You've got to know how to control people. 'Cause they all need control. That's the biggest pitfall for many people: they can't deal with the people issues. That's why they never become the boss."

Genovese dismounts from his soapbox. One of the first areas to be poured is an octagonal pad near the rear of the property. This space will become an eating nook situated off one corner of the 350-square-foot kitchen. The kitchen, in turn, will adjoin the 650-square-foot family room. Genovese has thought a lot about the flow of this house. He thinks architects often churn out designs without sufficient reflection. You walk through their creations, and one thing after another makes you wonder why they were built they way they were. Genovese has an answer: "They did it that way because nobody paid attention. They could have done it differently, but they didn't."

Overhead, dark clouds to the north are drawing closer. Cool, moist weather is great for pouring concrete. It keeps the material from drying out too fast and cracking. The onset of heavy showers would be a problem, but Genovese doesn't look worried. "I mean, it doesn't rain in San Diego."

He shifts his gaze earthward again. One of the oddities of building a house is how one's perception of its size shifts as the work progresses. "They start chalking it out, and it looks so damn big, and you go, 'Oh my God. That's big!' Then after they get done pouring all the concrete, and you pull all this wood off, and you backfill, all of a sudden it looks small again. Then you put the sticks up, and you say, 'Oh my God. It looks big again!' Then you start putting the little walls inside and you say, 'Oh my God, this looks small again.' "

Framing's underway

October 11, 2002

In just three days, a forest of sticks, as Genovese calls them, has sprouted at site 151. In the sudden change from two-dimensional concrete footprint to three-dimensional wooden matrix, the mansion-to-be feels enormous.

Although the concrete will take 28 days to reach full strength, the framers started their work just 3 days after the big pour, on a breezy Monday morning. They're not employees of Castillero Design and Construction. They work for a subcontractor. This same crew will be framing all three of Genovese's projects. A couple of lead framers will be on the site from the start of framing to the finish, and at times other specialists will be brought in. Some will bang nails into sections of wall that have already been laid out for them. "And then you bring in people to build trusses and sheet floors and nail roofs. They come in. They set up for it. They knock it out," says Jeff Garner.

Garner is a Castillero employee, a crucial one: the superintendent overseeing all three of Genovese's projects. For the next couple of years, his office will be located in a trailer parked up the hill and across the street from site 151, on the property where Genovese and his wife will live. Tall and broad-shouldered, Garner has a boyish face but a manner that's all business. In college, he majored in finance, and he worked in retail for a while. But "I decided I wanted my weekends off," he recalls. So more than 20 years ago, he decided to try to break into construction.

"I started out as a laborer on a construction site." He worked his way up to being a framer, then a construction supervisor. "We were building hotels and stuff like that. Then the lead person who was running those jobs went out and started his own construction company and took me with him. If you meet the right people, and they can see that you're driven and you really want to learn, people will teach you." In September 1993, Garner went to work for Castillero, a move he says has worked out well. "You have to enjoy what you're doing, and I just love what I'm doing."

Garner explains that the first thing the framers at site 151 did was to prepare the junction between the concrete foundation and the wooden skeleton-to-be. The concrete contractor had laid the groundwork for this by placing upright threaded steel rods (known as anchor bolts) into the footings that form the perimeter of almost every room. After the concrete was poured around them, these anchor bolts protruded several inches above the surface of the floor. When the lead framer, a compact, aristocratic-looking man named Marco, arrived on the scene, he and an assistant began making the "base plates," the bottommost pieces of wood that would sit directly on top of the concrete. Holes had to be drilled into them so that they could be slipped over the anchor bolts. Once all the base plates were prepared, the framers, working with the materials laid out on the ground before them, could start nailing the base plates to the tall vertical studs and short horizontal wooden blocks. Each completed section of wall would then be tilted up, lifted, placed over the anchor bolts, and secured with nuts and wooden braces.

"You start at one side and you work your way through," Garner says. "It's like doing an Erector Set." Indeed, after just three days, the progress seems amazing. Almost all the first floor is standing, and there's a beauty in the complex geometry of the framers' handiwork: all rectangles and squares and right angles. It's a warm, pastel peach- and salmon-colored beauty, and the freshly cut pine and Douglas fir smell good too. Hammers pound, a confident noise that mixes with the slithering of measuring tapes and soft music from a Tijuana radio station.

Piles of wood -- planks and two-by-fours and floor joists and more -- have been stacked all over the lot. The lumber going into this house is worth about $100,000, so much wood that it's being delivered in batches; otherwise there wouldn't be room to store it all. Increased structural-engineering requirements have meant "there's a lot more lumber in these houses now than there was even five years ago," Garner says. "We have 20-foot ceilings in some of the rooms. If you do a normal house, that would have eight- or ten-foot ceilings." To enhance the impression of solidity, Castillero and Genovese have designed the house with walls that are up to 12 inches thick in some areas.

Besides the framing, other activities have been unfolding on the site. Masons have begun building the low wall that will wrap around the north and east sides of the property. They're using buff- and rust- and gray-toned stones that came out of the ground here when the footings were dug. Garner wants to get rid of the on-site generator as soon as possible, so he's been working to run utility lines (electrical, gas, phone, cable, security) onto the property. "It's a scavenger hunt." He explains that the pipes come up near the property line, but they're buried. The utility companies "tell you approximately where they are, and sometimes they're right on the money." They can also be up to 40 feet off, but yesterday Garner's men located everything they will need.

Plumb and line

October 14, 2002

The mansion's frame doesn't look as if it's tilting. All the planes appear to meet each other at 90 degrees. But this is illusory. Everything is only more or less level. The work this day will make it precisely so.

Marco places a hefty carpenter's level up against the side of a stud. He checks the bubble of air inside the vertical gauge. If the bubble isn't centered in the vial, he calls instructions to his fellow workers. They adjust the angle of the walls by using long wooden braces. As they work, the flexibility of the frame becomes evident. Sometimes only a tiny nudge is required. At other times, they have to push and shove a section into the proper inclination. "¿Más?" they call.

"Poquito más" (a little more), Marco answers. As soon as the bubble settles between the two lines in his level, he yells out, "¡Clávalo!" (Nail it!) His helpers then nail the braces into position, affixing most of them to blocks of wood that have themselves been nailed to the concrete foundation. Later, when the roof sheets and plywood shear panels have been added to the structure and given it stiffness, these braces will be removed.

Marco says the leveling operation will take a day or two. He and his crew will then start nailing shear panels to the outermost studs. These are large sheets of plywood that will stiffen and stabilize the frame. They're the first true dividers of indoor and outdoor space.

The house seems to be going up almost as fast as one of those Tijuana dwellings built by church groups in a day. Garner, the construction superintendent, says the apparent initial speed often confounds people having custom homes built. "They say, 'What do you mean it'll take ten more months? It's almost done! I'm ready to move in.' "

Arrival of the roof trusses

November 1, 2002

The roof trusses are large, mostly triangular pieces of framework that Genovese has ordered from a factory, rather than having the framing crew build them on the site. Constructing them that way has two advantages, he says: the prefabricated trusses are both less expensive and more precise. The manufacturer delivered them yesterday to the empty lot across the street from site 151. Now an operator is using a crane to pick up bundles of trusses and drive them across the street. Holding an attached line, Marco tries to steady the bundle. He looks like a man out walking his dinosaur.

Next to the house, the crane operator lifts bundles of trusses onto the tops of rooms, where they'll be unbundled, positioned, and nailed into place. Over the past two and a half weeks, the mansion has become a lot more corporeal. There's shear panel on a number of the surfaces, and all the second-story walls have been framed. No staircase connects the two floors yet; the workers are using a crude ramp to move between them.

The roof is on

November 18, 2002

Installing the roof trusses and covering them with sheets of plywood has effected a huge change at the construction site, at least as seen from the street. Instead of a disorganized jumble of separate parts, the building now looms as a single entity, albeit one with several wings.

Most prominent is a wide, low-slung section that's canted toward the driveway. In this section, the roof bridges a wide passageway between two substructures. Genovese envisions the one on the right as a guest room, while the one on the left won't be a room at all but a little garage. After driving through the covered passageway, Genovese sees the future master of the house parking his Lexus SC or Porsche Boxster here, rather than in the main 800-square-foot garage.

The physiognomy of the rear of the mansion, too, has undergone changes. Off both the family room and the living room, the framers have constructed coverings for future patios: ponderous wooden structures supported by stout square columns interspersed with arches. Shear paneling has been affixed to more exterior walls, and as a result, it suddenly feels as if the inside of the house has lost its spectacular view of the surrounding panorama. (That's another construction illusion; dozens of spaces for large windows and glass doors remain.)

There's more to look at on the inside now. Whereas the outer frame of this house isn't all that different from that of a simple bungalow, the inside will have numerous deluxe features, and the framers have begun to work on these. Almost every doorway, be it three feet wide or nine, will be arched, and every arched top must be created from numerous short blocks of wood -- a more costly and complicated process than simply nailing a header beam across two posts. Almost every ceiling will be fancy too. Genovese wants a network of recessed panels (known as coffers) above the kitchen, for example, and the complex honeycomb of wood required to create that has already begun to take shape. Other ceilings will be barreled and domed and vaulted.

On this afternoon, Genovese is having an extended conference with Jeff Garner and his boss, Dan Castillero, in the master-bedroom wing. This part of the house will include not only a huge room for the owners to sleep in but also a sunny attached sitting room facing the breathtaking view. Two enormous walk-in closets, two bathrooms (his and hers), a gym, and a study (for him, Genovese imagines) complete the layout. The three men have just decided to make the sitting-room ceiling a groin vault and to add some short "stub walls" to better frame the picture window there. "When you walk in here, that will be your focal point in the bedroom," Genovese predicts. He's also been mulling the exact placement of several interior arches, along with the connection between the man's bathroom and the bedroom and sitting room. If it were open, the guy would be able to step out of his luxurious shower and take in a view all the way to the border. The three men decide to frame a four-foot-wide doorway so that the buyer can add a door if he wants to. But they think it would look better without one.

Asked why he has reserved the bathroom with the best views for the man of the house, Genovese bristles. "Look at her bathroom!" he demands, moving to the large room next to the sleeping chamber. "Are you kidding me? Look what she's got here!" She'll have a toilet/bidet room bigger than some people's bedrooms. She'll have an 11-foot-long wall of cabinetry, next to a tub of royal proportions. "And a fireplace over here!" Genovese adds. "We're putting in a fireplace for her! What more do you want? See, she's sitting here, doing her makeup, and look what's reflected in her mirror!" That spectacular view to the south.

What he's doing now is "feeling the spaces," Genovese explains. Despite what the plans say, it's important to be willing to make changes, he believes. "You walk into any building, and you'll see something wrong with it." Genovese thinks that's often because "somebody followed a drawing" instead of making adjustments when it made sense to do so. "We're trying to fix the errors as we see them, as we go along."

Tarpapering the roof

November 25, 2002

The weather forecasters say rain might be arriving later in the week, around Thanksgiving. In anticipation, a crew of workers has arrived this Monday morning. By early afternoon, they've blanketed most of the tilted planes of the roof with the waterproof material known as tarpaper or felt.

The roofers unroll the spools of paper, overlapping and aligning each length with the previously laid row; then they tack the new section down with unhesitating smacks of their hammers. From the ground, it's impossible to see how they manage to snatch up nails, affix them to their hammers, and pound them in so fast; it looks like one smooth motion. Part of the secret is that the nails come with little round collars of lime green plastic that make them easy to pick up. Many of the hammers used by the roofers also have a little ax head so that the men can cut the tarpaper with a minimum of wasted motion.

This afternoon a lean, tanned, happy-looking man clad in shorts stands watching some framers who are working near the roofers. He looks as if he might be a neighbor checking on the progress of the new building on the block. In fact, he's Bob Bacon, owner of the framing company. He says this house doesn't contain any elements he and his crews haven't put together before. "But you always come across little glitches here and there that you've got to figure out." At the moment, they're rebuilding a section of load-bearing wall where Genovese and Castillero have decided to change the design. "It was fun to figure out," Bacon says. "It's fascinating. You're putting a puzzle together."

Asked to compare the framing in this project to what there would be in a modest tract home, Bacon chuckles. "A tract home? They don't make those anymore! Everything is now between 3000 and 5000 square feet." Still he ventures that if anyone were building a 2000-square-foot home, all the framing for that could probably be completed in four weeks. In contrast, his crew has now been on this job for seven weeks, and a lot of work lies before them.

The windows have arrived

December 5, 2002

Dozens of windows stand stacked up in the garage, and a few are being installed. They're Windsor Pinnacles, casement-style, fabricated entirely of wood. Genovese says he's studied all the windows on the market, "starting at the top of the line and going down to the bottom. On a scale of one to ten, [the Windsors] are probably, pricewise, a seven. But in terms of value, I think they're a ten."

Besides beginning the window installation, the rough carpenters have added the central staircase located to the left of the front door as one enters. This has undergone major revision from the way it was drawn on the plans. Once Genovese started feeling the three-dimensional spaces, he realized that, as planned, the staircase would deliver those who descended it to face an unremarkable wall separating the living and dining rooms. He, Castillero, and Garner began tossing around alternatives and came up with a wide, sinuous structure that curves down and almost enters the living room. It will look even more striking, Genovese promises, when it gets its ornamental iron railing, one of the house's French details. "It'll look like New Orleans style," he says.

The windows are in

December 19, 2002

A few of the French doors need to be hung, but every window opening has been rimmed with black weather-proofing paper and fitted with its white-framed glassy shield. All of the house's more prominent windows are arched at the top, a refinement that costs at least twice as much to build as standard, square-topped windows.

Genovese is deep within the thicket of expensive decisions about the ceilings, arches, doorway entries, and soffits. "You do that after you put all of the framing up," he declares. He knew in advance, he says, that he wanted most of the ceilings to make a statement. But it's too difficult and expensive to draw all these details in advance. Instead, "You frame the box," he says. "Then you come in here and you start looking at it and you say, 'Well, let's put a coffer or a groin or a dome over this room. How should we do that?' "

From the look of things, the answer is never simple. The frame for the concave octagonal ceiling of the kitchen nook resembles a sturdy wooden spider web. Like the one in the kitchen nook, the vaulted ceiling in the master bedroom is composed of dozens of different-sized wooden slats, each one measured and cut and fit within the intricate pattern.

The upper floor contains three large rooms that open onto a wide corridor. The first two will be bedrooms, each with a prosaic view of the next-door neighbor's property. As if to compensate, one chamber is 16 by 18 and the other is almost 17 by 19. They each possess walk-in closets, full bathrooms, and showy ceilings -- one a "creased dome" and the other a barrel. Choosing the barrel shape was a bit of a gamble, Genovese allows. It means the bed will have to be placed against the far wall in the center of the arch. "There's no other place for it to go in the room now," he says. Any other spot would look odd. "But I thought it was the right thing to do."

For the ceiling of the game room, next to the barrel-vaulted bedroom, Genovese is creating a recessed panel -- roughly square but with the corners clipped off. "It's been laid out so if you want to put a pool table there, it will fit [under the panel]." In addition to accommodating a full-size pool table, the room will have some other nifty features. On an inner wall, glass doors will open onto a hand-forged iron "Juliet balcony" overlooking the family room, a feature suggested by Castillero. More glass doors on one of the game room's outer walls will open onto an octagonal deck commanding the most wondrous views on the property, and an ornamental iron spiral staircase will connect the upper deck to the back yard. Genovese has decided the game room should have a "convenience center," including a small refrigerator, a sink, and cabinets. "Because I think if you're up here, you want access to that." He thinks "the combination of this room plus this deck makes this a nice family house. You have two beautiful bedrooms up here. So the kids can occupy these bedrooms, use the game room, and come right down on the spiral staircase. They don't have to go through the main entrance of the house."

Downstairs, Genovese has just incurred another expense he didn't foresee. He's going to rip out the two posts supporting the overhang outside the living room and replace them with an enormous beam. "Architecturally, it's sounder to have the posts. They make the house look better when you're standing out in back. That's why they were put in there originally. But from the inside, we didn't like them. When you walk in the front door, it's too busy."

Making the fix will cost about $2500. "Some things on paper just get by you." The grand staircase is another perfect example. "There was nothing wrong with that staircase. But when we saw how it looked when you would be coming down it, it was awful. It would have made you feel claustrophobic, as if you were being directed into a wall." Changing that was even more expensive than eliminating the posts, he says. "We had to go through re-engineering because that wall next to the staircase was holding the second floor up."

Other workers besides the framers have been toiling at the site over the past few days. A plumber has been installing waste lines and vents. Masons have begun building the fireplaces that will command attention in the living room, the master bedroom, and the family room: stacking and mortaring concrete blocks and lining the cavities with fire bricks. Genovese and his team have also begun dickering with the heating and air-conditioning subcontractor. Figuring out where to run the ductwork is always a headache, according to Genovese. "He needs a lot of access to run the ductwork so that the house will be comfortable and efficient when it's completed." On the other hand, no one likes to see the grills. "So you're always arguing," says Genovese. "If you did what the heating and air contractor wanted to do, the house would be ugly." At this point, "We've had a preliminary meeting with him, and he's gone back to the drawing board."

Planning the electronics

January 9, 2003

With Christmas and New Year's Day behind them, the tradesmen have been making steady progress. The colonnade outside the back of the living room has been ripped out and replaced with the enormous beam. Meanwhile, the front entrance has become more shrouded and imposing with the framing of a 4-foot-long, 12-foot-tall arched passage attached to a 10-foot-tall arched doorway. The indoor fireplaces are almost complete. By the end of this afternoon, all the rough plumbing will be in. Now Genovese is turning his attention to the mansion's electronics.

He and Garner have been meeting this morning with representatives of Advantage Security and Multimedia, one of the firms bidding to provide the specialized wiring (as opposed to the standard electrical connections). Advantage started as a security company, Genovese explains. "But they've grown into full-house electronics. That's a big market. The prices keep coming down.... They're falling like a rock. It's like the computer industry."

At site 151, Genovese wants to install certain minimum levels of electronic sophistication and give the future owners the capacity to add more if they want. "You know how you walk into a house and you see a Nutone intercom system, where you go up to the wall and push a button and it talks all over the house? Well, I'm not going to put that in here." He wouldn't want one in his own house; the technology is too primitive, he thinks. Instead Genovese's planning to install a $4000 phone system that will provide both intercom and security functions. The occupants will be able to pick up a receiver and dial a number to call another phone in another room in the house, he says. "Or you get a phone call, you put them on hold, hit the other line, and the person will pick it up somewhere else in the house." When the front doorbell rings, the occupants will be able to pick up any phone in the house and talk to the bell ringer.

This house won't be sold as "a true smart house," like his own home-to-be, Genovese acknowledges. He's installing fiber-optic cabling in his own house and says it will have everything anyone could want: automated window and shade openers, a movie theater, electronic lighting controls, external security cameras. He'll be able to turn on his spa while driving home, and it will be hot for his arrival. But Genovese says he can't predict the tastes of the future owner of the house at site 151. He's compromising, using category 6 wiring -- double the capacity a standard tract home would have -- but not putting in the fiber optics. "I'm going to give them the pipes in the walls and the wires in the walls so that they can go ahead and add whatever electronics they want. I'm trying to give them the maximum flexibility at a cost basis I can afford. Then the homeowner can move in and relatively easily make this into a totally smart house."

He's taking a similar approach to the "entertainment center" in the family room. To be erected against the wall that faces the kitchen, it will include a cabinet big enough to accommodate a 65-inch television set, the largest on the market today. Genovese says the cabinet will be set up "so you can put all your component parts in there." It will be wired to junction boxes in the ceiling so that the occupant can install surround-sound speakers. But Genovese won't purchase the TV itself or decide whether its signals will come from a cable or satellite feed. He won't buy the speakers. "Speakers are a personal choice," he declares.

It may be a month before the electronics wiring begins. In the meantime, Genovese is having Advantage install a central vacuum-cleaning system. That's old-fashioned technology, he says with a dismissive wave of his hand. "Just a bunch of pipes running through the house with receptacles on the wall so you can plug a hose on them and vacuum the floors." (The vacuum's central pump will be located in the garage.)

Three months after they started, the framers are still at work; Genovese keeps adding touches. He's decided to create decorative niches on either side of the fireplace in the living room instead of the cabinets he originally had envisioned. This house will have plenty of custom cabinetry. Genovese and the cabinetry subcontractor have already hashed out many of the details.

The roof tiles have arrived

January 24, 2003

Three trucks loaded with slate tiles left Vermont on January 6. They pulled into Cielo last week, and now three dozen pallets of the material are strewn around the grounds. On each pallet, layers of tiles have been stacked vertically, like crackers in a box. Their basic color is gray, but closer inspection reveals a rainbow of green, charcoal, and violet shadings.

"I probably had 500 pieces of slate in the form of samples," Genovese says. Working with the quarry personnel, "We kind of gerrymandered the roof together.... There's a certain percentage of one color, another percentage of a second color, another percentage of a third." Genovese has furthermore ordered the tiles in three different thicknesses. The workers will lay out a couple of mixtures on the breezeway near the front of the property. The roof there is easiest to scrutinize from the street above. "And who knows?" Genovese adds, looking mischievous. "I might like what we come up with the first time." If not, he'll make them try other combinations.

None of this will happen right away. First the tiles must be placed upon the tarpaper-covered wooden roof and left to sit there for a few weeks. "It's a test," Genovese explains. "The roof is designed to hold a certain amount of weight. So you put all that weight up there and make sure that all the trusses and everything are holding it." The house's ceilings must all remain open so that the supporting members can be scrutinized. Only after the county building inspectors sign off on the roof can the insulation and drywall begin to go in.

There's a bigger change apparent on the outside of the house. Over the past few weeks, four concrete-block chimneys have been climbing skyward. They've now reached their full height and have been topped with "French-curved" chimney caps. The last chimney and fireplace to be completed occupy a little outdoor courtyard in front of the august entryway. An ornamental-iron balcony will overlook this front courtyard. Asked if he envisions this space to be used for entertaining, Genovese looks dubious but allows as how it might. Its main purpose, though, is to serve as yet another buffer between the mansion and the outside world.

Inside, the heating, ventilation, and air-conditioning contractor has been hard at work installing flexible ducts that are a foot in diameter and covered in a material that shines like polished silver. One could imagine that the walls have been invaded by festive giant worms.

The electronics start going in

February 6, 2003

It's a cool, breezy day, clear, but with a thin layer of clouds moving in. Advantage, which Genovese has chosen to supply the security and home-electronics systems, has sent a young man named Lance Booth to begin that work today. Another Advantage employee installed the vacuuming system yesterday. That took only six hours, but Booth thinks his work will require four days. He's planning to put in a lot more wire than he'll probably need; he says sometimes the redundancy proves useful.

Booth's not the only person running wires at site 151. A couple of electricians have been drilling holes through the studs and threading the holes with lines that will carry electricity to all the outlets and fixtures. Those won't go in until the house is almost complete, but the electricians have nailed sky-blue plastic junction boxes at every location where the builders want the plugs and wall sconces and chandeliers to be.

After the first big rain

February 13, 2003

The first big storm of the year moved in Monday (three days ago), and rain poured throughout Tuesday and Wednesday, transforming the back of site 151 into a lake. By this afternoon, a Thursday, most but not all of the water has soaked into the ground. Pools of rain dot the inside of the master bedroom wing as well.

A lot of water blew in sideways through sections of exterior wall that still haven't been enclosed. The timing of this storm must gall Garner, who had hoped that the "wrapping" of the mansion's exterior with waterproofing paper would begin last week. But all the materials didn't arrive until Monday, when the storm's approach was imminent.

Garner's crews did manage Monday to pour an inch-and-a-half-thick layer of lightweight concrete throughout the second floor of the building. The concrete "soundproofs and gives the second floor some stability," Genovese explains. "So when you're underneath it, you don't hear the noise of people walking on a floor." Carpet will later cover it.

The concrete pour also entombed some notes about the electronics system that were scribbled on the wooden subfloor upstairs, much to the dismay of Booth, the installer. "I was supposed to write it all down, but I was in a hurry to get out of here Friday and I forgot. When I came back, I realized, 'Uh-oh.' "

Booth sounds glum for other reasons. He's already been on the job for six days, instead of the four he had anticipated. "This house is killing me," he laments. "It's the ceilings and stuff like that. I can't get any rhythm going. And then there was the rain." He's almost completed the stereo wiring. It runs not only to the home-theater system in the family room but also to speaker outlets in the master bedroom, the master bathrooms, the game room, dining room, living room, and two of the patios. But Booth is still putting in the wires for the security system, as well as for the computer and home-automation systems. In some places, the spaghettilike bundles look like a meal for a giant.

Stucco and drywall

March 6, 2003

All the veins and arteries (the wires and pipe) are now in place, and the house is beginning to acquire skin. Outside, black waterproofing paper has been stapled to every surface, and this has been covered with lath. The even geometry of the chicken-wire squares gives the outside walls a tidy, quilted appearance.

Inside, the insulation crew yesterday filled all the spaces between all the studs with squishy yellow fiberglass. Garner says they've used as much material as anyone ever uses in Southern California (R30 in the ceilings and R19 in the walls). "Insulation is one of those things that's really reasonable. So you might as well overload it."

The drywallers arrived this morning to start hanging Sheetrock. They'll be using panels that are five-eighths of an inch thick, versus the more common half-inch-thick variety. "It's funny, but if you go into two houses, one built with each, the one with the five-eighth-inch stuff will just feel more solid," asserts Garner.

He points out that if the insulators have a half-day's start, the drywallers can never catch up to them. Hanging and finishing the drywall is a time-consuming project. The panels of Sheetrock must be cut into pieces that will fit not only on the walls but also around all the windows and doors and into the fancy ceiling designs the framers have created. The edges of each piece must be screwed to the underlying studs and blocks to secure it into place. Doing this makes each room look as if it finally has real walls. They're not walls that can yet be painted; the screws and rough seams would show. The cheap way to hide them is to stick the strips of paper known as drywall tape over them and spray plaster over the whole surface. But that rough-and-ready approach would never do for the mansion at site 151. All the screws and seams in its walls will instead be taped and plastered and sanded to a glassy smoothness -- so new and perfect that they will lack the venerable old feeling coveted by Genovese for this building. They'll thus receive a light final coating of plaster that will incorporate subtle blemishes known as "holidays." The end result will look as if the walls were built 100 years ago, the old-fashioned way, out of lath and plaster. (Genovese says he can't actually build them out of lath and plaster because the craftsmen who once did that have all but disappeared, especially on the West Coast. "That's an example of the unions pricing themselves out of the market," he grumbles.)

Like the walls, the fireplaces are evolving. This morning workers are spreading a coat of uncolored stucco over the concrete-block fireplace façades in the family room and the master bedroom. "We're going to plaster those so they look just like the walls," Garner explains. "We have to smooth the block out so that it can get that same kind of drywall texture."

The floor of each shower in the house has been hot-mopped with an expensive waterproofing mixture of tar and fiberglass in preparation for the tile soon to come. And the house's cabinets have been ordered, according to Garner. "We're trying to prepare ourselves for everything that comes on the back end of the drywall." That's probably five weeks away, but then "everything can happen," Garner says. "This is the slow phase, coming up to that."

Outside, piles of slate tiles have been deposited in clusters all over the roof, and the valleys where leaks would seem most likely to develop have been lined with protective metal flashings. Weeks ago, Genovese decided to use copper for the metal. "It will all be copper -- all the flashings, the roof edgings, the nails.... See, you can't mix metals. If you do, the two metals will oxidize. Once you make a commitment, that's the deal. You go all the way." Genovese reflects, "I could have used aluminum, like everyone else." That would have cost half as much. But he says using copper should avoid future staining problems, plus it will look prettier. Genovese sees this choice fulfilling the commitment that he made up front to high quality. "It finishes the house off. It solidifies the infrastructure, as well as it's visible."

Another highly visible component has arrived on the scene: the mansion's front door. It's a steel arch, almost ten feet tall and four feet wide. Antique glass will later be sandwiched between the filigree of bronze-colored metal that fills up its central area. Garner says it cost "about $7000," a relative bargain as opulent doors go. "We were getting prices up to $15,000 and $16,000. And at the last house I just finished before starting these, the front door cost $22,000. They can get pretty pricey -- but they can make a house."

Although the door has already been hung, it's going to have to be replaced, Garner discloses. The manufacturers "didn't countersink the hinges. They just kind of welded them on top of the jamb and on top of the door.... You couldn't tell until after it was installed, but the door doesn't really close right." In the final two inches, it wants to spring open. Garner says the manufacturer has agreed to send a new door and jamb. "It's too bad. It's a beautiful door," he remarks. But in this of all houses the occupants will want their front door to swing shut, solid and unresisting. "We don't give people spring-loaded doors."

The circus has arrived

March 21, 2003

As Garner hoped, the drywall crew moved fast, completing the job in just two weeks. Two days ago, the tapers showed up.

Many of the interior surfaces of this house are out of arm's reach. Two of the workers have strapped on stilts, on which they stride with a lanky grace. They each carry a three-foot-long tape-dispensing instrument that they call a bazooka. Working it requires a pumping action that's distinctly gunlike.

More fascinating and appalling is the action unfolding under the big top, the 21-foot-tall ceiling of the family room. The tapers have erected a scaffold that comes close to it, but they're not mounting a ladder to get to the top of the scaffold. Instead, they've created a makeshift bridge between the scaffold and the openings of the second-story game room overlooking the family room. A tough-looking young man armed with a bazooka hoists himself through one window and strolls, insouciant, over the eight-inch-wide plank that spans the abyss. His sense of balance is so refined that, once on the scaffold, he makes it look easy to raise the implement over his head and drag out long lines of plaster-backed tape, covering the seams of the drywall. His companion, an older man working on another board balanced between the opening for the Juliet balcony and the scaffold, looks more uneasy. He braces his metal plaster container against the ceiling as he flattens the tape and plaster with a metal trowel. From time to time, he mutters curses in Spanish.

It's a trip that the tapers will have to make several times. This is a multistage process, with sanding interspersed with the taping. Outside, the several steps involved in finishing the exterior walls are also proceeding. Yesterday, workers "scratched" the light concrete bottommost layer of stucco through the openings in the chicken wire. Next week they'll apply the second layer of this concrete, known as the brown coat. (The final colored coat of stucco won't go on until much later.)

But the house is already watertight, Garner points out. Torrential rains poured the previous weekend, and when he walked the house on Monday morning, searching for leaks, "I found only one wet spot. We got the roofer here Monday afternoon, and he took care of it. There was one little crack in the seam." The final covering for the roof has been taken a step closer to completion. Above the breezeway, workers have arranged the slate tiles in two different patterns, and Garner says, "We've decided to go with the one on the left." It's a tighter arrangement that makes the surface appear to undulate a bit more. "It makes it a little rougher looking," says Garner.

With all the taping and stuccowork in progress, the construction site is now as dirty as it will get. Mud-spattered plastic sheets taped to the outside of the windows make it impossible to see out. Heavy black paper has been laid down over the concrete floors to keep them clean, but the paper is littered with drywall tape and dust and gooey plaster drips and other garbage. "This is the messy phase," Garner declares. "Once you get past this stage, then the mess is done. You start finishing it up. Then it goes from just being a house to being the fun part."

Laying out the pool

March 26, 2003

The tapers are sanding now, getting closer to the application of the final overall "texture coat." Garner figures they should finish up in five more days. Then his men will begin installing the first pieces of crown molding that will adorn most of the intersections of the walls and ceilings in this house. This molding, which is made of Styrofoam and in some rooms is more than a foot high, has just begun arriving at the site. "It takes about a week's worth of work before you can actually put it up," Garner says. The pieces must be covered twice with a hard material known as foam coat. The texture can be made to resemble wood, but "we're going to do it so it looks like plaster." Garner says "another coat of all-purpose mud [plaster] and then a topping coat" will go on top of the foam coat. The crown molding installation will take months, he predicts. "There's a lot."

Besides the taping, two other activities are taking place this afternoon. Garner's masons are getting ready to cover part of the front of the house with stone. They'll be using the same buff- and rust- and gray-colored rock with which they built the low wall six months ago, applying it to the three single-story façades that face the street. By the time the masons finish, those walls will look like bulwarks. Today the men are preparing the concrete in a little portable mixer. They will create a concrete base from which the stone will come up to surround an arched window set within each of the three façades.

Garner is on the site this afternoon to tackle another task: laying out where the 45-foot-long pool will be dug. In the past, Castillero hired pool subcontractors. "But we found we were overseeing them anyway," Garner says. So now Castillero employees do this work. The first step in creating the pool at site 151 has already been taken: the landscape architect has produced drawings indicating where it should go. As planned, the pool will be seen by any visitor who walks in the front door and looks ahead through the glass wall at the end of the living room.

But Garner's got a feeling Genovese and Castillero may want to shift the pool closer to the western edge of the property. "There's a lot of room back there," the job superintendent notes. For the moment, he's spraying Day-Glo orange paint on the bare dirt to mark the location specified in the plans. The other two men will stop by later this afternoon to appraise it.

Wherever it winds up, the plans call for the pool to be fed by a waterfall flowing out of a rocky (manmade) hillock. A 15-foot-wide spa will adjoin the main swimming area, as will a "Shamu shelf." But there won't be any diving board. "Everybody's been sued out of that business," Garner says. "There's only one company in the whole country that makes them." He says when he was building a pool at his own house, "I explored the possibility. But for a board that used to cost, like, $300 or $400, they were quoting me around $1800."

Plastering is almost complete

April 9, 2003

A solitary worker is still taping the edges of a doorway upstairs, and elsewhere, scattered bits of taping remain to be done. Installation of the stately crown molding has just begun. But the spattered black paper has been removed from the floors, and the plastic sheets have been stripped from the windows. With those two simple steps, the house at site 151 at last appears almost livable.

Outside, under a sun that feels relentless at 10:30 in the morning, two men are affixing slate tiles to the carport roof. It looks to be a job for someone with good knees. Several dozen tiles have been piled up near the roof peak, and the lead worker -- a tall, lean, graying Hispanic man -- selects two or three at a time from the pile. He inches down the steep slope, squats, and taps copper nails through holes pre-drilled in the tiles. Then he stands and does it again. And again. And again.

The work of the masons is less comprehensible. They've completed one of the rock façades, but they're only halfway up the central one, and as they work on it, the complexity of their task becomes clear. It would be easy to make the wall look thicker if they were affixing evenly shaped concrete blocks to it, but instead, they're drawing their materials from a pile of broken, scabrous rocks. To mark the planes they need to fill in, the masons have tied strings to fixed points around the original façade. They then select rocks of the right size and color to create the more-or-less even plane of what will be the new façade, filling in behind that with smaller stones and concrete. Sometimes to get a stone that's the size or shape, they have to split larger rocks with a mallet and a chisel. From time to time, they check their work with a level.

Inner trimmings

April 23, 2003

Nothing has happened yet on the pool. Garner was right. When Genovese and Castillero came over, Genovese declared that the pool should move west by about 20 feet -- exactly what Garner had predicted. "It just felt like it needed to move that much," the superintendent says with a self-deprecatory shrug. The three men have also decided to lower the southwesternmost piece of the property, the part just beyond where the pool will go, by a bit under 2 feet. This will improve the view of Rancho Santa Fe's community reservoir (known as Lago Lindo) in the distance. On the lowered terrace, "We're going to do a little sitting area, with probably a fire ring," Garner says. The addition has changed the design of the pool, so excavation probably won't start for another two weeks. "I'd love to see it happen sooner," Garner murmurs.

The roofers have finished laying slate tiles over the breezeway, the toy-car garage, and the guest room. From the street, the finished roof expanses look like snakeskin. Now the roofers are toiling on the sections over the study and gym. It won't be possible to complete the roof until after the final stucco coat is applied, a few months down the road, so Garner says Castillero has decided to let two slate specialists work alone, rather than calling in a large crew. "The thing about a slate roof," Garner notes, "is if you don't lay it just right, it'll start to look too uniform, too much like just a standard concrete roof." There's an art to choosing the mix of colors and thicknesses. "Since there's not a huge hurry to get it finished right away, we get more control having just two guys do it."

Inside the mansion, many of the walls and ceilings have received a coat of creamy paint, a shade that Garner says is called Sandy Lane. "It's a good warm base. I'm sure a lot of the rooms will stay that color, but if we go up or down a shade in some of the areas, it's still a good base to start with." Besides reducing the dust, getting paint on the walls was also a high priority because the cabinet installation should start tomorrow, Garner explains.

With the addition of the paint, the mansion's interior suddenly feels clean, austere, luminous. All but two of the interior doors have been hung over the course of the past two weeks, and these also change the feeling of the place. All are regal objects, one and three-quarter inches thick (the dimension of an external door on a more basic house) and seven or eight feet tall, with arched tops.

To Garner though, "Everything looks really plain in the stage the house is at right now. Really monotone," he declares. His men are about to begin applying the finishes that he predicts will "bring it all to life." The coffered ceiling in the kitchen, already a complex, three-dimensional grid, will get "antiqued," Garner offers as one example. "That really highlights it. We'll put another color over it and do kind of a brushing and sponging technique." This will make the ceiling look old, and it "really brings out all the detail."

Elsewhere, almost all the heavy crown molding has been installed, and now the workers are starting to put in the baseboard, which is almost three times the height of humbler varieties. "We're bullnosing all the corners," Garner says with a note of pride. The outer corners of all the walls in the mansion have been given the rounded bullnose treatment that is common in higher-end homes, but Garner says builders often cut corners -- literally -- when it comes to the baseboard, rather than buying the necessary bullnosed connector pieces. "They're about ten bucks apiece. That's why a lot of builders don't use them. But you can see the difference when you do," he says.

The superintendent comments that the dozen or so men at work in the house now are all Castillero employees, and they'll be doing most of the work from here on out. "Everybody does a little bit of everything, and some guys key in on different items. They might be working with wood one day and tile the next."

Cabinets going in

May 1, 2003

Garner describes as "European-style" the cabinets that have appeared in many of the rooms of the house. Altogether they cost about $100,000, and Garner says they'll look as if they cost even more by the time the workers get done with them. The exterior wood is alder, in its unstained state a sandy color with a slight pink cast. The interiors are a wood-grained melamine the color of dark maple. "Usually people just do white interiors, but it's a nice upgrade to go to the wood grain." Screwing and nailing and gluing the cabinet bodies into place is just the first step, Garner warns. "They have so far to go. All kinds of different crowns and fluting will be added." Then they'll undergo a multistep staining process designed to make them look antique.

Dramatic changes are evident in the bathrooms, where tilework is beginning to cover the shower walls and the walls surrounding the bathtubs. For this work, Castillero is using travertine and tumbled marble in shades of gold and tan, with accent pieces in contrasting colors. Garner wrinkles his nose at any suggestion that the bathroom tilework is the same throughout the house. That's what you would find in the "production" houses lower down the hill, he says. Here the designs are different in every room, he says. "And in the master suite, we'll tie everything together."

Outside, the roofers have worked their way up to the highest point of the building's central section, and the stonework below them is nearing completion. The masons will finish grouting the three rock façades, and they've also erected two four-and-a-half-foot-tall walls at the entrance to the inner front courtyard, yet another layer of fortification.

Underneath the roofline of the breezeway, there's evidence of a tough decision involving the mansion's fake corbels. A corbel is a supporting architectural member that comes out through a wall. In traditional construction, they help to hold up the roof, but they have no structural purpose in this home. "They're just aesthetic," Genovese says -- another evocation of France Past. To create the corbel illusion, the builders are using pieces manufactured by an Escondido stucco company. Garner smiles when he picks one up. Although it looks like a section of heavy wood beam, it's lightweight: Styrofoam, covered with a frosting of concrete. "They're hard as rocks," Garner says, and ingrained with a realistic wood pattern.

The question confronting the builders now is what color the fake components should be painted. Five corbels, painted in hues ranging from gray to forest green, have been installed under the roofline, and Garner just ordered three more colors this morning. "The rock has a certain color to it, and the roof has a certain color to it. So when you put something that looks gray against it, it may look blue or green. Or something green looks bright green. We're still fine-tuning that."

The first realtors have begun walking through the house, Garner mentions, adding that they've been enthusiastic. He feels confident that the mansion at site 151 will sell before it's finished. "They always have." He laughs.

Shelves and trim

May 15, 2003

Curlicues and French-fluted legs and baroque scrolls have sprouted all over the cabinets, which have also been topped with dental molding and wooden beading and crowns. Many of the wooden gewgaws are prefabricated appliqués that look carved but in fact have been glued and nailed on. But the cabinet doors behind the six-and-a-half-foot-long bar that adjoins the family room bear two clusters of grapes that were carved by hand at the cabinet factory.

Genovese has bestowed other attentions on the bar area. It connects to the mansion's eight-foot-long and five-foot-wide wine-storage room, which has no door at the moment but will get one later to contain the well-chilled air it will acquire. The wall at the back of the "cellar" (as Garner calls it) holds floor-to-ceiling crisscrossing wooden wine bins. Copious amounts of additional space for wine bottles has been created along one of the side walls. This includes pull-out racks in which Genovese plans to screw real wooden wine cases. "We actually saw that in a magazine and said, 'What a cool idea,' " Garner confesses. "So Ralph went down to the Rancho Santa Fe Market and said, 'I'll buy six cases of wine if you'll give me the boxes.' " Garner says the lower cabinets in the cellar will eventually be topped with a stone counter -- "nice and high for opening wine bottles. And we'll probably finish the walls in such a way to really make them look like a wine cellar," with rough plaster or stone or large bricks.

One of the few gaping holes remaining inside the mansion -- the doorway that overlooks the family room from the second-story game room -- has been plugged with wooden French doors inset with panes of glass. (Its Juliet balcony has not yet arrived.) But a new, late-coming hole has appeared almost directly across from where the balcony will go. Garner explains that once the massive wooden "entertainment center" cabinet was set up against that wall, Genovese decided the three windows high above it "just didn't look right." He ordered a fourth window to be added, with the TV cabinet centered beneath the apertural quartet.

In the back yard, a six-foot-wide bite out of the ground is a harbinger of the impending pool construction. Beyond and slightly below it, the little terrace for the fire ring has been leveled. You can stand there and almost imagine you're on the bow of an ocean liner heading for the distant blue horizon.

Finishing the cabinets

May 23, 2003

"We got rid of our dirt pile yesterday," Garner exults. "This is the first time we've seen the front yard!" He was able to have the pile removed because the pool excavation out back is now complete. "Now that the pool's dug, we've separated out all the rock we want to keep. The pool will get a lot of rock. There's a big waterfall, and the back wall will be all rock." More will go on the outdoor barbecue and other areas. "We need as much rock as we can get our hands on," Garner says. But with the rock now segregated, the rest of the dirt is superfluous.

The excavation site, though large, is crude. To refine the pool's boundaries, flexible "bender board" will have to be nailed to posts driven into the ground. Then "we can have the guys come out and put all the rebar in," Garner explains. "And then the plumbers will come in and do all the pipes." After the plumbing and electrical infrastructure has been laid, "We can get it inspected. And after inspection, it's ready for gunite."

The inside of the house is wearing a new perfume. The pungent scent of lacquer heralds the ongoing transfiguration of the cabinets. All the cupboards in the second-story rooms have been coated with a conditioner, then stained a rich chestnut brown. A sealing compound has also been applied to them, and they've been hand-sanded, a step that has left them covered with a hazy white film. After this is cleaned off, a darker stain will be rubbed into the cabinets' grooves and edges in order to make them look like heirlooms. They'll be sprayed with a final clear lacquer, a semi-gloss finish that will look too new and glossy at first, according to Garner. "But within three weeks or so, as it cures, it softens up."

The painting subcontractor is doing this work, while Garner's crew has beavered away constructing shelves and drawers and other storage compartments in the pantry and closets. For much of this work, they're using medium-density fiberboard, a dense, strong artificial material that "paints up beautifully," Garner says. "It's a really versatile product. We buy it in sheets, and we can shape it and do whatever we want with it."

The first hint of the mansion's finished flooring has appeared on the grand staircase. On the end of one plaster-spattered plywood step, the workers have cut and shaped several pieces of travertine tile. It's a prototype for the stonework that will cover the end of each tread; carpet will run up the center. The second story of the house, except for the bathrooms, will be carpeted, while almost every part of the first floor will be covered with the creamy stone.

This morning Garner hazards a guess that the mansion will be finished sometime in October. "It depends," he says. "Somebody could walk in tomorrow and buy the house. And they may want to just paint the walls and be done with it." At the other extreme, "We've had people buy houses who want to move walls.... We built one spec house where they had us tear out all the marble flooring and put down saltillo tiles." If the buyer wants to pay for it, Garner says, Castillero Design and Construction will make any changes anyone can dream up.

One final door

June 6, 2003

Saws are screaming. In the living room, a worker is cutting pieces of tile for the mosaic taking shape within "her" bathroom. From the garage, a river of small wooden trim pieces flows. After three months of waiting, Garner yesterday received his replacement for the defective front door and had it installed. Now all the doors are up save one, a self-closing fire door for the passage between the house and the garage. This is a turning point, according to the construction superintendent. As soon as that last door goes in, his crew can start bringing in all the more expensive items -- appliances and chandeliers and the like -- and locking up the house at night.

Colored chimneys

June 18, 2003

In preparation for the potential buyers-to-come, someone has nailed the mansion's street number onto wooden stakes next to the curb. As if waving attention-getting arms, all four chimneys have received a cheery coat of yellow stucco, Genovese's final choice for the exterior color.

The decision turned out to be a nightmare, the owner says. The first hue he and the builders selected was a neutral taupe, but once they applied a sample to one of the outside walls, Genovese thought it looked too pink. He says at first he and the builders weren't trying to coordinate the stucco color with the stonework, but then they changed their minds, so more possibilities went up on the wall. "We also got ourselves in a little bit of a pinch because the two houses next to us are basically the same [golden] color family," Genovese says. "We don't want to be like them. And yet -- we wanted to be like them, if you will." He wound up preferring a creamy yellow tone that turned out to be discontinued. He chuckles. "We resurrected it from the manufacturer." With the stucco-color decision behind them, Genovese, Castillero, and Garner are still waffling over the paint color for the exterior trim. "That's actually been about ten different colors," Genovese says. "We're back-and-forthing because we've all got our opinions and we're trying to come to a consensus, but eventually I'm going to make a statement that the consensus no longer applies."

Coloring the outside of the mansion is one of the few big tasks that remain to be done. Another is setting all the pieces of stone trim that have been delivered to the site. They're another example of trompe l'oeil at site 151, not made of stone at all but rather cast from concrete that's been poured into molds to make it look like stone. To heighten the illusion, the fabricators have hand-chiseled many of the pieces to be used around the fireplaces, windows, fences, and elsewhere. The trim adds heft and solidity and substance, Garner says. "You drive through this whole development and you will not see that much precast on any other house," he contends. "I go through every open door I can to see what everybody else is doing. And I always tap on the fireplaces. A lot of people are just doing cast fiberglass, but the precast concrete is the upper end. It not only looks solid, it is solid."

Still another big item on the to-do list is completion of the pool and landscaping, but this has temporarily stalled at the county building department. "Every step you take, you need to go back and get it approved -- even though it was all approved originally!" Genovese fumes. "Your children will see that they can't make a move without getting permission from the government. We're gradually progressing down that road to either socialism or communism."

Raising the bar

July 1, 2003

On the walls of the guest bathroom off the living room, an intense butterscotch color has appeared. It's not ordinary paint but a new "Venetian plaster" material that can be polished to a finish that resembles marble. Both Garner and Castillero are smitten with it; they've each used it in their own personal homes, and Genovese is impressed too. It could be just the thing for the study.

The study has been troubling him. It's a room that could tip the balance in someone's decision to buy this house. It shouldn't be too plain, Genovese thinks, so for days he's had the carpenters cutting lengths of wood trim and fiberboard, nailing them to the walls to create wainscoting. The men have been experimenting with the pattern of the panels, and Genovese has also been vacillating about how they should be finished. He had both the cabinets and the doors in this room made of stain-grade wood, but now he's resisting darkening them. He thinks a gloomy wooden study is a cliché. "Everybody's doing that." As an alternative, he's thinking about using an off-white shade of the Venetian plaster on the wall panels and antiquing the wood around them to match.

He's also toying with the idea of adding decorative panels to the doorway between the living room and the dining room. "I don't have to do it," he points out. "It'll cost me hundreds of dollars. But I intentionally decided to raise the bar here."

Why? "First of all, I just want to be proud of it," Genovese answers. He says another reason is that he and his wife will be living on this street, and he's hoping that as other people build on the empty lots, they'll be inspired to meet the highest possible construction standards. "At this point, everybody thinks Davidson [the developer building "production homes" down the hill] is Cielo. The fact of the matter is, this is Cielo here. This is the crème de la crème. But people won't recognize it until you show them the type of home you're putting up here."

Genovese says a third consideration is that he wants to sell the house for close to $4 million. He's come to believe that, right now in San Diego County, between 6500 and 8500 square feet is "the size range that works best for a house that's going to be sold for between two million and four and a half million dollars." But even houses with the same square footage can vary by close to $2 million -- within the same development. The desirability of the lot accounts for some of the difference, but the rest of it is "the kinds of amenities you're going to include," he asserts.

"Right here in Cielo, if you go down to Davidson over there, you can find a 6200-square-foot house that's almost the same size as the one we're putting up the hill there." But the price difference between them will be $1.8 million, Genovese says. That's because the cheaper one is "a stripped-down house. It's got some sizzle, to get people interested. But the truth of the matter is, it's got cheap windows, cheap everything. There are no 8- to 12-inch-thick walls." They're all 4 and 6 inches thick -- the same as those in any ordinary tract home. "The hallways, instead of 48 inches, are 36 inches. So when you walk through them, you feel it." When you walk down the stairs in his houses, the descent will be "nice and comfortable," Genovese boasts. "Theirs will be steeper. Those are all the little things your average person feels when they're inside the place. They may not know what they're feeling, but it all contributes to the value of the house."

The thought of not building storage structures into the large walk-in closets off the master bedroom at site 151 repulses Genovese. A house of this quality demands such customization, he asserts, and no closet has gotten more of it than "hers." In the past few weeks, the carpenters have been loading the spacious room with an overabundance of hanging racks and cabinets and shoe cupboards and wide flat drawers, all fabricated by the Castillero crew and painted silky white. In planning it, Genovese says, "You say to yourself: what does a woman usually have? Lots of pants and shirts. If we were back East, we'd have to give her more room for coats and long dresses. But living in this climate, she's got an awful lot of two-piece units, so we've given her a lot of shelf pole." Both sides of the closet door have been covered with mirrors. She can study her appearance both coming and going.

Genovese's thinking about the outdoor living spaces is still evolving, but some work is underway. On the least-exposed corner of the property -- the eastern side of the house outside the family room -- the masons have built rocky walls to enclose the ugly machinery that must be stored somewhere on the property: the pool's gas heater and pump, air-conditioner compressors, and the like. The original plans called for an outdoor barbecue to be erected on the patio near these walls, "But we decided that was stupid," Genovese says. "That's too far away from the kitchen." Instead the barbecue will materialize next to a kitchen window that can function as a pass-through. Genovese has also decided that only the far side of the spa will have an infinity edge. "Not the pool. We're going to have a raised beam around the pool." He thinks this will be safer and also, "I just want to be different. I'm so tired of all the infinity-edged pools. They're all like cookie cutters."

Kitchen countertops are in

July 17, 2003

To top off the rich, dark lower cabinets that line the kitchen walls, Genovese has chosen a topaz-colored granite known as Desert Amarillo. Charcoal veins run through the stone, which has a lower-luster "honed" finish instead of being polished to a high gloss. The fabricators have used three thicknesses of the material to create the edges of the countertops; this gives them an unnatural appearance of bulk and solidity. The countertops are in place now, and the kitchen's two undermounted porcelain sinks are set (a double-bowled main sink and a small prep bowl set into the mammoth island).

The first floors in the mansion to receive their final floor covering are the bathrooms in each of the upstairs bathrooms. The builders have used a 12-inch-square tile made of a tumbled travertine known as Ancient Durango.

The pool is lined with rebar

July 31, 2003

Few changes are taking place at site 151 these days, but one occurred yesterday when the crew arrived to install the rebar in the pool. They fabricated the intricate framework of metal in one day, then returned this morning to redo the spa, lowering it by six inches. "It was blocking a little more of the view than we liked," Garner explains.

He notes with satisfaction that almost all the precast concrete has now been set in place. It surrounds the three front windows set within the rock façades, and it clothes the fireplaces. It crowns the roof edge of the kitchen nook (on top of which a deck will be created), and it decorates the columns outside the family room. At the entrance to the front door, curved pieces have been set in a jigsaw puzzle of concentric arches, as if to defy anyone passing through not to think of European cathedrals. Nowhere do the castings look like bourgeois concrete, but rather they look like patrician limestone. Considering that their sole function is cosmetic, it's amazing how weighty and monumental this window-dressing makes the building feel.

All the house's interior walls, windows, doors, and trim now wear at least one coat of paint, but much more painting remains to be done, outside and in. For one thing, Genovese has decided the dining room walls should bear the same butterscotch-colored Venetian plaster that was used in the guest room. Workers have applied a three-foot-square patch of it. "We put it up to make sure everyone liked it," Garner says.

He has the look of a man who can begin to see the light at the end of the tunnel: distant but beckoning. He notes that the last of the plumbing fixtures -- sinks and tubs and the like -- will be installed this week. The stairs will soon be ready to receive their travertine end treatments. A plastic holder containing FREE BROCHURES (PLEASE TAKE ONE) has appeared by the curb in front of site 151. The fliers, the first piece of formal advertising for the property, display a sketch of the finished property and the caption "Almost Heaven."

The final stucco coat

August 3, 2003

On the garage and the two-story portion of the house, the color has changed from dreary concrete gray to sunny final stucco. Genovese estimates it will take three to four weeks to complete this final makeover of the house's outer appearance. Out in back, where long trenches have been dug, things look less finished, not more. But Garner promises that the pool plumbing will go into the trenches fast, and the gunite will follow soon afterwards.

Yellow plastic tape marked "Caution" now blocks off the doorways leading to the living room. That's because a worker has begun to apply a goopy greenish-black crack-isolation sealant to the concrete floor, in anticipation of the stone to come.

Genovese isn't planning to fill most of the mansion with furniture, but among the exceptions are a few faux-antique bureaus that have appeared in some of the bathrooms. Another change is obvious in the kitchen, where workers have installed a fan and vent pipe above the place where the cooktop will go. They've covered the metalwork with a wooden framework that in turn will be blanketed with plaster and tile trim.

Genovese discloses that over the weekend, he and his wife drove down to the EastLake development in Chula Vista to take in this year's "Tour d'Elegance" luxury home tour. He's still shaking his head over what he saw. He thought it all looked mediocre, from the layout to the finishwork. The sconces in the first home on the tour weren't level, he noted. Doors didn't fit. Light fixtures were positioned unevenly. "I went through there with a little notebook. I was going to make notes for ideas and stuff, and when we left, I had just six entries -- and every one of them was about a piece of furniture or an appliance or something. They had nothing to do with the houses. Not one thing." Genovese thinks the worst house was the modern one, where "people had to wait for other people to go up and down the staircases because they were so narrow. Every door in that house was like that!" There's a report that the modern house is already in escrow for $4.4 million, but Genovese can't believe it.

Railings and balconies

August 21, 2003

Another huge pile has appeared in front of the mansion: sand for the gunite to be sprayed tomorrow to form the shell of the pool and spa. The gunite, which consists of a mixture of concrete and fiberglass, will cover not only the steel framework but also the white PVC piping that now snakes through the pool complex. No one is working on the pool this morning, but a solitary man is digging a trench next to one of the kitchen windows. Footings for the outdoor barbecue will go in the trench.

The main action at the construction site is unfolding inside, where a complicated mixture of 12-inch-square and 6-by-12-inch travertine tiles covers the floor in the living room, the "her" bathroom, and much of the central corridor that runs through the long axis of the mansion. At first glance, the mix of tiles appears random, but "if you look at it long enough, you can pick out the pattern," Garner says. "Every 16 pieces, it repeats." In every room that's been tiled, the travertine has a paradoxical effect: it warms and amplifies the ambient light and at the same time makes the room seem colder and more formal.

The shower intended for the man of the house is now complete, and it's almost Roman in its splendor. More than six feet long, five feet wide, and eight and a half feet tall, it boasts two entrances, each sealed with a door made from a single piece of glass that swings both inwards and outwards. A piece of plastic along the bottom makes the doors sigh softly as they open and close. Soothing beige, brown, and golden stone cut in a multitude of sizes covers the inside of the bathing area, where both handheld and stationary showerheads have been mounted to the wall. In addition, a circular "rain head," ten inches in diameter, hangs overhead. "It's pretty much gonna get you wet from every angle," Garner notes.

The superintendent mentions that he went out and jumped on the metal balcony that at last has been hung outside the French doors of the game room, overlooking the family room. "It's solid. I gave it the big-guy test." On either side of the balcony there are windows, which have received matching metalwork in the shape of window planters. And workers are beginning to solder the framework for the railing on the grand stairway. "All of that will get a real nice finish on it," Garner promises. "We may do a faux finish that's more in the silver and gold family so it doesn't look so massive."

Something green

September 3, 2003

Bare dirt and stone and concrete and wire and wood and plaster and metal have been the predominant materials at site 151 for so long that it comes as a shock to see the cluster of greenery near the front of the property this morning. The cluster includes three substantial olive trees in planter boxes, as well as pots containing a variety of common bedding plants: daylilies, white and lavender lantana, bougainvillea, Texas privet, oleander, pittosporum. Work on the landscaping has finally begun.

With the last of the stucco color applied, the roofers have been able to return. Only a few patches of roof still require tiling, and one of the roofers predicts this work will be finished in a week. Today, they're working on the top of the awning in back of the living room. They can gaze down upon the newly gunited swimming complex, which Garner will allow to cure for a few weeks before applying the final plaster. In the meantime, it looks dark and raw, like an industrial installation. A large puddle of greenish water occupies the deepest area.

Work on the travertine floor indoors is still in progress. A tile setter in the dining room looks as if he's working on a giant jigsaw puzzle, laying walnut-colored 12-by-12-inch travertine squares at a 45-degree angle to the surrounding grid of lighter travertine. The kitchen floor, too, still needs to be covered, but the workers have finished setting the tumbled marble backsplash in a rhomboid pattern. Amid the tiles, they've inset little medallions that cost $20 apiece.

For the first time in months, the makeshift wooden railing that has served as a guardrail for the second-story landing overlooking the living room is gone. Ironworkers are preparing the metal bases for the cast-iron railing that's expected to arrive any day now. Along with the metalworkers, painters are toiling inside the house. They have a huge task in the study, where the carpenters have finally stopped fiddling with the rococo paneling and trim. Elsewhere ceilings need to be antiqued, trim touched up. The vast majority of the storage closets have been completed, though. They're pristine sanctuaries harboring shelves that gleam with layers of oil-based paint.

Roof completion

September 10, 2003

The last of the roof tiles have been set in place, and the copper gutters and drainpipes have been hung. They're as shiny and colorful as new pennies.

Today site 151 stinks of steer manure. A pile of it has been deposited in the front yard for use as the trees and shrubs are planted. Everything delivered last week is in the ground, but the slopes at the front and sides of this property still look barren.

Pool trimmings

September 23, 2003

The mansion at site 151 doesn't look like a fortress, but it feels like one, far from the urban hurly-burly. Once you've reached the outskirts of Rancho Santa Fe, you have to enter the gates of Cielo, pass by the guardhouse, drive almost to the top of the mountain, enter the driveway at site 151, and park. Then you make your way on foot through the front gates and the inner courtyard, finally traversing the massive entryway and passing the hulking front door. So much substance has been added to the house over the past 12 months, it's acquired an aura of invincibility. If you owned it, you might kid yourself that nothing bad could reach you here.

Sitting in his trailer up the hill from site 151, Garner hangs up the phone and announces, "We're in the wrong business." The right business, he explains, appears to be fence construction. "For years, I've gotten iron-picket fencing installed for about $20 a foot. But I just got a bid for $45 a foot." At that rate, the back fence for site 151 will cost $12,000, Garner calculates.

County ordinances require that the swimming pool be fenced. To keep the view from the pool unobstructed, Genovese plans to run the iron barrier down each side of his property and along the very back edge at the bottom of the hill. Anyone frolicking in the pool or lounging in the spa probably will never glance down that way, the view toward the ocean is so compelling.

The spa has been designed so that it's set on a wide shelf at the deep end of the pool. Castillero employees are almost finished covering the spa exterior with the same rock mixture that's on the streetside façades and all the low exterior walls. They've also positioned flat slabs of a dark gray granite around the perimeter of the pool to serve as the coping, and one worker is grinding away the inner edges of these slabs; Genovese doesn't want anyone shredding his Speedo as he hauls himself out of the water. On the far side of the pool, boulders and stones have been piled up and grouted into place, and flexible white piping has been threaded among them. Dirt will be built up behind the rock pile and covered with plants "so it'll look like the water is coming from somewhere," explains Mark Strovers, the supervisor who's overseeing this part of the construction. He says he may paint the pipe to hide it, "But usually you can just put a couple rocks in front of it. A lot of times we like to put a rock right in front of the pipe anyway, to help disperse the water."

Strovers learned to build natural-looking pools while working on the East Coast but says he didn't get a chance to use the knowledge much. "I was just building houses." When he moved to San Diego County, however, and went to work for Castillero, his expertise became useful. Strovers is keeping an eye on the outdoor grill taking shape 15 feet away from the pool. Today a mason is building a rock base for it, and Strovers has used wooden slats to rough out the dimensions of the countertop. He's waiting for Garner to approve those dimensions. "The design-as-you-go approach always makes it a little bit slower," he comments. "As opposed to handing me a blueprint and saying, 'Make it just like this.' But that's the fun of doing a custom home. You get a chance to look at it before you do it."

When Garner shows up, he heads straight for the back yard. Most of the activity at site 151 has shifted there; everyone is anxious to get the final outdoor concrete poured. Indoors, the tasks of the two or three men who are still working have shrunk to fussy refinements. In one of the upstairs bedrooms, 67 closet shelves have been stood up alongside the walls, awaiting one more spray-coating with white enamel. In the kitchen, a young carpenter is preparing to install the handles on the cabinet doors. Silvery overtones have already been hand-painted on these. "You don't want a real even finish on them," Garner says; they're supposed to look aged and weathered.

Garner says the railing for the grand staircase and the landing above it will receive similar treatment. Secured into place at long last, the metal railing writhes with curlicues and cloverleaf shapes and leaves at the end of sinuous stems. Garner promises it will come to life even more "once it gets all its colors on it." The effect of the railing's arrival is already dramatic, like a beautiful, well-dressed woman slipping into her lacy nylons and high heels after weeks of going about barefoot.

"We're very close now," Garner reflects. "It's really funny. When you get a house to this point, it looks further away from being finished than it is." From here on in, "basically it's touch-up and cleanup. And once the carpet lays in, it looks like a finished house."

Lighting fixtures

October 3, 2003

The finish job in the study is now complete. The room looks as if it's been carved from old ivory.

Birdcage-style door levers, finished in pewter tones, now open every door in the house; lights have sprouted from the walls and ceilings. Garner says there are 72 fixtures, indoors and out, and that he, Genovese, and Castillero have chosen them all. "Dan [Castillero] does a big part of it. We discuss it and knock it around and get a little input here and there."

To Garner's relief, another bid on the back fencing came in that was $4000 lower than the first one. The fencing hasn't been installed yet, but most of the other structures in back of the house are nearing completion. This morning the workers have been smearing grout into the stones around the swimming pool. The stone fire ring is almost built, and all the barbecue lacks is its countertop. This Genovese has decided should be made from concrete.

In the garage, several hulking Sub-Zero cartons stand like sentries.

Back slab is poured

October 17, 2003

At site 156, which stands across the street from site 151, the land has been leveled, and someone has begun to chalk the outline of a foundation in the dirt. Laborers will be pouring the first concrete here soon, while at Genovese's project, the men are getting ready to create the last such expanses.

In back of the mansion, most of the hardscape went in yesterday. The new deck is a cardboard-colored shade of concrete known as Mesa Buff. To make it look less monotonous, the men have scored it with tools to create various joint lines: long ones around the pool and barbecue area and a smaller grid of two-by-two-foot squares off the family room. The workers are still attending to this area today: wetting the concrete; brushing and polishing and smoothing as it hardens.

The second-story deck that overlooks their ministrations is also almost complete. It's been tiled with charcoal- and gray- and plum-colored slate rectangles, though it still lacks its wrought-iron railing. And yet another outdoor space is under construction this morning. Off the dining room, the house has a small inner courtyard that up to now has held little more than dirt. But now the workers are paving it with more of the natural stone.

The kitchen looks ready to cook in. The only missing appliance is the microwave that will be built into the nook in one of the room's inside corners. Double Thermador ovens have been installed next to the five-burner Thermador cooktop, while on the adjoining wall, the 36-inch-wide Sub-Zero freezer and refrigerator look big enough to hold a couple of aging beef carcasses. In the nearby wine cellar, the workers have installed the wooden cases Genovese acquired from the local market. The lettering and insignias on the cases read "Château Figeac, Château La Dominique, Château Lagrange."

Elsewhere in the house, primping continues. Chandeliers are being suspended from almost every ceiling, while in the master bedroom, two Castillero employees are toiling over the plastered front face of the fireplace. One is rolling on a beige-colored glaze, while the other almost immediately removes most of it, daubing at it with a rag. Their aim is to make the surface look as aged and mottled as some of the ceilings in the house.

Front slab

ready to pour

October 24, 2003

Over the course of the past week, the workers have added:

*

The antique glass that goes between the front door's metal scrollwork

*

More mirrors (gilded, carved, laden with scrolls and wings and floral flourishes) in every bathroom in the house

*

All the posts for the fence around the back of the property

*

The stainless-steel multi-knobbed Grand Turbo grill set into the barbecue center. (The little under-the-counter Sub-Zero refrigerator still needs to be installed.)

*

The iron railing around the second-story deck. (Now only the wrought-iron outdoor spiral staircase is missing.)

*

A prefabricated fountain for the small inner courtyard off the dining room

More profound than any of these changes is what has happened to the large flat area between the front of the house and the steep slope leading up to the street. For more than a year, this area has been a dumping ground, a parking lot, a storage area for building materials and detritus. All that is gone today. In its place, the workers have used stakes and bender board to demarcate a circle, 43 feet in diameter, with another 10-foot circle at its heart. They've laid a network of steel rods within the circles, and they've laid more steel beyond them: in front of the carport and under the breezeway and in front of the two garages; through the stone front gates and all the way up to the front door.

Next week, the final concrete at site 151 will be poured into these steel-reinforced enclosures. Because the area to be covered is so vast and the exposed-aggregate finish that Genovese intends for much of it is so complicated, the work will take place over the course of several days. To achieve the finish, the concrete workers will pour one section, and as soon as it's flat and firm, they'll toss handfuls of pebbles all over it. They'll push the pebbles down until they're below the surface of the concrete. After it hardens some more, the workers will use hoses and brooms and acid to expose just the surface of the embedded pebbles.

There's some urgency to complete this work. On November 5, the Cielo sales office will be hosting a "broker caravan" for local real-estate agents. Nine Cielo properties will be open for inspection that day, and Genovese's house at site 151 will be one of the star attractions.

The end

December 8, 2003

Even though it wasn't quite finished, the house at site 151 won rave reviews from the realtors, according to Genovese and Garner. But the spiral outdoor staircase didn't arrive in time for the big event, and the pool was empty and unplastered. There wasn't time to peel the stickers from the windows and wash them to a state of sparkling clarity. Most of the landscaping was not yet completed.

Today, those chores are done. The pool and spa received their coat of dark gray plaster yesterday, and submerged hoses are filling both with water. By the end of the week, all the dirt will have been filtered out, and the water will appear to be a deep sapphire color.

Inside the mansion, there's a silence that feels eerie and abrupt. Genovese's efforts to sell the place will escalate soon. At some point, someone will buy it and move in. Will they be noisy people who use the large spaces to host frequent, boisterous parties? Will they be generous and kind? Cold and reclusive? Depraved and duplicitous? Will they bequeath the house to their children and grandchildren and great-grandchildren, so that 100 years from now their name will be forever linked to its prodigious presence? Or will the house change hands time and again, augmenting fortunes, ameliorating some disasters, exacerbating others?

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