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The Tower: A Construction Allegory

  • March 11, 2021

Every house is a Tower of Babel that miraculously succeeds against all odds. But the fact that we succeed is not a success, because it is based on an assumption that we could not succeed at so much more: at places that are more beautiful, more affordable, more available, more attainable; places that are built in weeks, instead of months or years; and places that reflect what each person wants to live in, not what they are required to pick out of a catalogue.

Yonatan Cohen
The Tower: A Construction Allegory

A long time ago, there was a brilliant builder who, as the story goes, developed a technology that was both simple and clever.

The idea was to collect mud from the salt marshes, mix it with ground chaff, shape the mix into rectangular blocks using small wooden forms, and then let the mixture bake in the hot desert sun for a few weeks until it was bone dry.

When the mixture hardened, they became bricks. And these bricks, because of their uniform dimensions, were easy to lift, lay, and stack. Each individual brick had a limited load-bearing capacity, but when stacked at scale, these bricks could withstand anything. They fundamentally changed the things this builder could dream of building. They were like pixels in a matrix, capable of any design at any scale.  

This was a great discovery. Mud as a resource was abundant, and shaping mud into bricks, and then stacking them, required very little skill. Realizing this, the builder embarked on a lifelong project: to build a tower that would reach the heavens. With infinite material resources and no need for skilled labor, nothing could limit its ambition. 

Despite these well-thought-out plans, the tower was never completed. Construction stopped hundreds of feet off the ground. The workers all disbanded. And the unfinished skeleton of the builder’s grand-vision was left to disintegrate in the elements over the ensuing millennia.  

With every possible resource and labor advantage…why did the tower fail? It wasn’t a failure of technology — the technology was simple, reliable, and resilient. It wasn’t a failure of bad planning — the builders had been planning for this one project over their entire life. 

It failed because the workers didn’t share a common language. 

Over the many generations, the workers building the tower began to specialize. Some workers became very good at making bricks,  some hauled the loads, while others made food provisions or paid the trades. Each group gradually developed their own language and forgot how to talk to other groups working on the project. Eventually, coordination and communication challenges led to a critical point of failure that, in retrospect, was painfully obvious.

We can now build towers that touch the sky, and so it is seductive to assume that this allegory has lost its relevance; the challenges have been resolved. 

But we builders all share a secret that many outside of our industry do not know: the Tower of Babel is just as apt an allegory now as it was millennia ago. The art of building is today as it was then, a collaborative endeavor, plagued by translation quality issues across cultures, languages, and time itself.  Architecture, the craft I have spent my life learning in places with languages and cultures as different as China, Mexico, Israel, and the United States, has always been limited by the extent to which groups and individuals involved in the process could communicate and coordinate the work ahead: the clearer the detail, the better the job. And so it makes sense that the limit to growth for our tower was a communication breakdown. 

I like to think of this story in the context of Mosaic’s mission: creating places people love and making them widely available. 

The business of construction, in our view, revolves around the constant expansion of three fields of knowledge:

  1. Products: “what” is being built — whether it’s a tower or a single-family home 

  2. Tools: “how” we manipulate raw materials, harness their natural qualities, and give them new forms for service, i.e. bricklaying and framing to robotic dry-walling and 3D printing 

  3. Language: “who” is coordinating the people and machines involved in the building process

Products and tools go hand in hand. As new needs emerge, they are met with innovative product types. And often, new tools generate entirely new kinds of products.

Language, on the other hand, is the grand enabler. With the right “who”, the products and tools matter less, and with the wrong “who”, the right products and tools don’t matter at all.

This is why we focus on language at Mosaic. A house is a complicated set of products built with an enormous range of tools. Coordinating these tools to build this integrated set of products is an order of magnitude more complex. On average, there are 20+ trades involved in the construction process alone. Before construction even starts, there are typically anywhere between 2-10 design and consulting entities that are involved in preparing for its construction; the federal, state, and local governments will always be involved in approving it; banks, lawyers, and insurers will always be involved in financing it; and eventually the homebuilder will always be involved in orchestrating the process; and at some point, some day, the homebuyer who will live there. 

Every house is a Tower of Babel that miraculously succeeds against all odds. But the fact that we succeed is not a success, because it is based on an assumption that we could not succeed at so much more: at places that are more beautiful, more affordable, more available, more attainable; places that are built in weeks, instead of months or years; and places that reflect what each person wants to live in, not what they are required to pick out of a catalogue. 

We are trying to change one of the most ancient human allegories at Mosaic: that we are destined to fail at big things because we are unable to communicate well on the hardest things. We will rewrite this allegory. 

We are developing a common language for homebuilding that ties the process from inception to occupancy, and well beyond. This language allows anyone to build a building in the real world comprised of atoms as easily as anyone can design a house in a computer game comprised of pixels. This same language can one day be applied to so much more: to every single thing we build and to every single innovative tool and new product out there.

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