Breaking New Ground: The Mosaic Story

Salman Ahmad and Sep Kamvar   •   09/02/2020

“There is one timeless way of building. It is a thousand years old, and the same today as it has ever been.  The great traditional buildings of the past, the villages and tents and temples in which man feels at home, have always been made by people who were very close to the center of this way.”

 - Christopher Alexander, The Timeless Way of Building (1979)

Mosaic represents a convergence of my academic pursuits and upbringing. I was raised in a construction household, so I had an appreciation for the rigor and precision of the craft.  But I also had a passion for software and computer science.  From a young age I was interested in not only understanding how things worked, but how they could be enhanced with technology. Growing up on job sites alongside my father - a self-taught contractor - taught me what works in successful building projects: quality materials, craftsmanship and relevant experience. As I pursued my computer science education at Arizona State and then Stanford and MIT, I continued to compare and contrast the software and construction industries.

Ultimately, they are very similar: computer programming and construction are both an art in orchestrating a process. In software you store data, schedule threads, and communicate via sockets. In construction you store materials, schedule contractors, and communicate via supervisors. But, they are also very different: software is brittle and fixed, while construction is fluid and adaptive. If a program gets input it is not expecting it will crash, whereas construction is more resilient; there’s almost always a way to fix the problem.

So why hasn’t construction productivity improved over the past 30-40 years, while software has made such rapid improvements?

Software processes persist  as code and can be almost infinitely re-used. Construction processes are mostly lost after the project is built. Iterative improvement gives way to exponential gain in software; not so in construction.

We wanted to do the same for construction. And, so we founded Mosaic.

My cofounder Sep and I first met at Stanford, where he was teaching and I was a graduate student.  I walked into one of his lectures and by the end of the talk, I was convinced I needed to work with him. His thoughts on how to shape the built environment resonated with my own. Sep became my informal thesis advisor at Stanford, and then my formal PhD thesis advisor when we both moved to MIT. Years later, all of our conversations and research - inside and outside of the lab - became an idea we could no longer treat as just conversation.

We knew we wanted to apply software to construction to make the home building process more efficient, scalable, and adaptable. And it was important to us that we didn’t disrupt any existing momentum in the industry. So, we avoided solutions where homebuilders needed to redesign the homes in their active developments and avoided approaches that required the workforce be retrained.

Process-Focused Approach

Instead, we developed a technology platform that models how homes get constructed in the field. Our platform operates on pre-existing construction drawings as inputs and generates a detailed data model of the house. Today our platform uses its data model to shorten building time and reduce waste in three ways, by: 

  1. Generating site-specific instructions for workers across different trades instead of workers needing to translate dense blueprints into action in real time on site

  2. Producing automation control files for material suppliers

  3. Scheduling work for capacity loading. 

But the true power of our platform is enabling new applications in the future.

Evolve without Disruption 

True to our mission, our approach requires little to no third-party behavior change. It requires no changes to the tradebase, to the materials, to the home designs, and to the inspections regimes. A home builder does not need to redesign their homes to work with our process and construction crews are able to apply their skills honed over decades of experience.

Standardize x Customize

Mosaic’s approach to home building is to standardize the process, not the product. Instead of gaining efficiencies by building the same home over and over, we want to gain efficiencies by codifying and optimizing the processes that take place in the field. Our platform’s data model provides a language through which the processes can be codified. And once they are codified they can be shared to democratize construction, patched to avoid common pitfalls, and optimized to reduce execution time and increase throughput. 

Just like software code. And if we can achieve even a fraction of the gains seen in the software world, this approach will allow building more unique places to be operationally viable and financially attainable. And this is our mission.

To make places people love and make them widely available.

We are holding true to the timeless way of building and evolving it through technology.  In a thousand years when people look back to the great traditional buildings of this millennium, we want them to be beautiful and resilient. We recognize it is an ambitious vision, but we are inspired by and committed to delivering on it every day. 

~Salman