What Developers Can Learn from the Romans: Part 1

August 23, 2023
Isaac Waitman

Why Care about Vitruvius?

I’m in the middle of a study of Vitruvius’ landmark work, De Architectura, and wanted to write a series of posts on some of the principles that seem applicable today. This first piece will cover the ideal education for real estate development.

First, a bit of background: if you haven’t studied architecture, you might not have heard of Vitruvius. Unfortunately, he is one of those influential authors – like Shakespeare – that we know very little about. We know that he was a military engineer under Julius Caesar in the 1st century BC. Later in life, he served as an architect for Caesar Augustus, overseeing parts of Rome’s reconstruction during the golden age of the empire. He played an important role in what Seutonius described as Augustus “finding a city of bricks and leaving it a city of marble”. 

Vitruvius seemed to be successful in his craft, but the main reason he is known through history is that his writings are the oldest surviving works on architecture in the classical world. Most of what we know about Greek and Roman architecture and engineering comes from him. And while his writing is useful as a historical resource, the most valuable aspect is the ability to see architecture through a different lens than us moderns.

One remarkable anecdote from the preface of his work is a comment about how Caesar Augustus thought of architecture as a “memorial to future ages” that would “correspond to the grandeur of our history” (I.3). More than 2,000 years later, we can safely say that they accomplished that goal.

A Book about “Architecture”

The English translation of Vitruvius’ title is literally, On Architecture. So why aren’t we talking about what architects should learn from the Romans?

The science of “Architecture” in the classical world carried a much different meaning than it does now. Yes, they designed spaces and buildings, but much like the “master builders” of the late Middle Ages, they also performed the modern functions of general contractors, engineers, city planners, accountants, inspectors, and many other functions that don’t have a modern equivalent. Given the broader range of responsibility than a typical architect today, who contracts with a developer to design the building, procure the required permits to build, and help oversee the construction, it makes sense to study Vitruvius’ work from the perspectives of the different fields he was involved in. One might even argue that a modern developer who coordinates all of the different aspects of a construction project is a closer match to the “architect” of ancient days.

The Training of a Developer

Vitruvius starts off his work with a discussion on training and education. We tend to think of most jobs today as a collection of specific skills that can be taught in a classroom. And in the modern economy, this is true in many cases – we have the greatest division of labor in human history, so specialization often leads to success. This perspective is also behind the mainstream view of education for real estate development: you go study for an MBA or construction management degree where they try to distill all of the business skills into a digestible set of knowledge that will set you apart from the competition (the focus is on “essential skills”).

The tricky thing with development, though, is that it’s not a specialized skill, but a role that requires a large breadth of knowledge and skills to do well. According to Vitruvius, it “depends upon many disciplines and various apprenticeships which are carried out in other arts” (1.1.1). He breaks the disciplines necessary for excellence in architecture into two classes:

  1. Craftsmanship: continued and familiar practice with one’s hands in techniques and building materials
  2. Reasoning: a broad understanding of theory and literature to guide design and technical skills or methods

The architect who masters both of these, he says, “like men equipped in full armor, soon acquire influence and attain their purpose” (1.1.2).

I think we still have a good understanding of the need for craftsmanship – Vitruvius’ first discipline – for modern-day development. While we see few formal “apprenticeship” models out in the wild, the mainstream advice for training as a developer is to go work for other developers or adjacent businesses to build the skills and techniques needed. This functions in a similar way to the ancient model of apprenticeship in a craft.

Where we fall short today is in Vitruvius’ second discipline: Reasoning. The classroom-based education I referred to above is largely focused on practical matters. In a way, it’s seeking the same goal as an apprenticeship (field knowledge) without the hands-on experience that makes an apprenticeship valuable. It is largely focused on techniques rather than theory or literature: how do you structure a development deal? How do you entitle land? What kinds of people do you need on your team? How do you accurately predict future cash flows? How do you actually build a building? How do you negotiate and network? Another way to frame this might be that we only focus on the “How” at the neglect of the “Why”.

According to Vitruvius, “Architects who without culture aim at manual skill cannot gain a prestige corresponding to their labors, while those who trust to theory and literature obviously follow a shadow and not reality.” (1.1.2) To translate this to the context of this piece, I would say that the standard method of training today produces developers who excel in “manual skill” but who lack the “culture” that stems from an education in theory and literature.

What would this education look like? Vitruvius states that an architect should be “a man of letters, a skillful draughtsman, a mathematician, familiar with scientific inquiries, a diligent student of philosophy, acquainted with music, not ignorant of medicine, learned in the responses of jurisconsults, [and] familiar with astronomy and astronomical calculations” (1.1.3). Some of these make more sense to a modern mind than others – drafting skills, math skills, and legal knowledge are things a developer could use frequently. But philosophy? Music? Medicine? How are those of any use to architecture or real estate development?

The ancients understood the connections between these fields: philosophy, for instance, teaches one to be “high-minded, so that he should not be arrogant but rather urbane, fair-minded, loyal, and what is most important, without avarice; for no work can be truly done without good faith and clean hands” (1.1.7). Medicine gives you an appreciation for human life and an understanding of health, which influences the design of buildings, neighborhoods, and cities. Music teaches harmony and beauty, which have an impact on buildings beyond mere acoustics. And when all fields are put together, the result is a student who graduates with the ability to recognize the “intercommunication of all disciplines, and by that circumstance more easily acquire general information” (1.1.11).

Why is all this important? Vitruvius goes so far as to claim that “only these persons can justly claim to be architects who from boyhood have mounted by the steps of knowledge of arts and the sciences, have reached the temple of architecture at the top” (1.1.11). This might be a little too extreme (even for my taste).

I would argue that a broader education – including classical liberal arts disciplines like philosophy, astronomy, music, and more – would be beneficial to those interested in developing real estate, and downstream, to the communities where those buildings are built. 

This becomes apparent when you start with the end in mind: what are the characteristics of a great developer? Is it not someone who can jump across disciplines with a working knowledge of each? Someone who can communicate with lawyers, politicians, bankers, contractors, tenants, and neighbors in equal capacity? And at the risk of sounding too prosaic, is it not someone who can understand the history of a place, the values of the people, the natural features in the surroundings, and the needs of a community, and turn all of these into a physical object that improves the lives of those around them? This picture is of a well-rounded individual with a wide breadth of knowledge but also very specific skills in important areas.

From this perspective, it makes sense to marry the educations in craft and reason that Vitruvius promotes. While not all development needs to achieve some type of lofty goal – most projects, in fact, will be quite mundane – the ability to draw insights from as many fields as possible will make for better decisions, stronger returns, and happier communities.

This is enough of a monologue on education – in the next piece in this series, we’ll take a look at development concepts that were important to the ancients that we don’t think about today.