Brick by Brick
Issue: Volume: 33 Issue: 4 (April 2010)

Brick by Brick

An architect uses digital tools to design a house made entirely of  LEGOs

When Barnaby Gunning was a youngster, he, like so many children, played with LEGOs, using the small, colorful, plastic bricks to build a multitude of objects. Who would have imagined that, many years later, he would be playing with LEGOs once again, only this time using millions of them to construct a life-size, multi-room house—including a kitchen, bath, living room, and bedroom, complete with fixtures and furniture, and all made with none other than LEGOs.

Architect Barnaby Gunning used Luxology’s Modo to plan the LEGO house

Gunning, a principal at Barnaby Gunning Architects in the UK, designed and helped build the LEGO house for the BBC television series James May’s Toy Stories, in which ambitious projects are created using popular toys. The project, however, was far from child’s play, requiring a great deal of digital design work and planning before construction on the unique structure could begin.

Always up for an adventurous project, Gunning received a call several months ago from a former colleague who told him about the TV crew’s plans. “As architects, we are interested in systems and how you can construct buildings,” Gunning says of his firm. He spoke to the series’ producers and was surprised when, a few months later, he received a phone call asking him to join the effort.

As if building a house from LEGOs wasn’t challenging enough, the project was hampered even more so due to the broadcast. “It’s one thing to build a house in which the time scale is sort of determined by deliverables, but with a TV show, the whole thing has to be juggled around their [filming] schedule,” Gunning says. From early discussion to airdate was just three months—not even enough time to construct a regular house. This home, however, was far from “regular.”

Because the clock was already ticking for the TV producers, they had ordered the LEGOs for the project before Gunning signed on—approximately three million of them, which equated to a week of production at the factory. “They ordered the standard LEGO bricks online,” says Gunning, “350,000 of this one, 250,000 of that one….” To determine the amounts, the crew built a toy-scale house (about a foot long and five to six inches high), and calculated the number of bricks that would be needed if that model were scaled to full size.
As to not influence Gunning’s design, the small model—a single-story house with a roof and terrace—was not shown to the architect and his firm. Moreover, when the designer met with the TV presenter, James May, he was pleasantly surprised that the host did not dictate specifics of what he wanted in the building, but rather left it up to Gunning. “He wanted us to build a house made of LEGOs, not just make a model of a house,” adds Gunning. “Oftentimes LEGOs are used to build a representation of something else. So the obvious thing would have been for him to say, ‘Here is a house I like, make it out of LEGOs please.’ ” He did not do that, much to Gunning’s delight.

May’s hands-off approach was ideal for a number of reasons. “LEGOs are a construction toy, and you can’t just scale up something,” says Gunning. “And when you start making something at full scale, the nature of the full-scale [object] will be determined by the building material, in this case LEGOs. We needed to find out what we could do and not do with LEGOs, and then determine how to put three million bricks together in less than three months’ time.”

The completed structure at the building site.

Design Concepts
When Plum Pictures, the series’ production company, had approached Gunning, the LEGOs had not yet arrived. To get an idea of what he would be dealing with and to design the unusual structure, the architect made a virtual LEGO set within Modo, Luxology’s 3D modeling and sculpting software. “I always use computer modeling as a way to test out ideas,” says Gunning, whose previous projects include the British Museum Great Court, The Esplanade Theatre Shells in Singapore, and numerous private houses in the UK. “I am of the generation of architects who started using 3D modeling to show ideas.”

Throughout his career, Gunning had tried various software programs prior to standardizing on Modo in 2004. “I was excited because finally there was a 21st century 3D modeling program that didn’t have all this bloated code floating around in the background,” Gunning says. “I can fly around, play with the design, change bits and pieces, and the results are immediate.”

Well over three million LEGO bricks were used to build the full-scale house. Some pieces, such as the people figures (top), were donated by the public. Other pieces were used for constructing the exterior and interior (bottom).

For this project, as he does for all his architectural endeavors, Gunning drew concepts by hand and modeled them in Modo, moving back and forth between the drawings and the 3D model. “My current dissatisfaction is in the lack of tight linkage between Modo and the drafting program we use, [Nemetschek’s] Vectorworks. The program is okay, but I feel like I am using systems from two different millennia and not getting the most out of it,” he says.

For the LEGO house, Gunning used Modo to not only get a feel for the design, but to communicate the concepts easily and efficiently. Usually that is in the form of presentations to clients, but in this scenario, the use was twofold: to generate an overall design and explore the layout of the house, and to convey the unique instructions for assembling the LEGO bricks into blocks, or components. Both required the ability to quickly duplicate instances of geometry, and to accomplish that, Gunning’s group wrote a number of Python scripts to generate the larger bits and pieces of the house.

For instance, “creating instructions for building the roof pyramids could have been time consuming, but instead we were able to write a simple script that created the roof pyramids quickly from our virtual LEGO set,” Gunning explains. “It can get confusing counting bricks on something like that because on each course there is a different amount of bricks, and you just can’t say, ‘I am adding two bricks here each time.’ You need to know which types of bricks you are adding each time you do so. Knowing what the logic of the structure was, I could generate the whole of the pyramid, and at the same time, the script could tell me how many and what types of bricks were in it.”

Gunning also used Modo to create basic components for the house, each containing several hundred LEGO pieces. In essence, the LEGO house would comprise thousands of smaller “houses,” some with windows, some serving as roof pyramids, and some as hollow blocks that would be used for the structural beams. With Modo, Gunning was able to explain how to create prototype components that would be tested, and then later, how the approved components should be assembled and combined to complete the overall structure.

The software also enabled the crew to design a pleasing outside aesthetic with the multi-colored bricks. Initially, the group did Modo renderings with random bricks, which was what May had in mind. “It just looked mad,” Gunning says. “Instead, working with the interior designer Christina Fallah, we came up with a design that emphasized stripes, giving it a bold, graphically strong look.”

Construction Plans
According to Gunning, Modo gave the design team a feel for the material quality of the LEGOs in a large-scale structure well before any components were assembled. LEGOs are quite strong, he says, and when they are pieced together, they stay together nicely. (The larger, chunkier LEGOs are less sturdy when joined together.) However, LEGOs can be pulled apart by a three-year-old quite easily. “That makes it difficult to use LEGOs for most conventional building projects,” he adds.

To determine the exact limitations of this novel building material, Gunning contacted Neil Thomas and Eva Wates of structural engineers Atelier One; they had pointed out, “quite surprisingly,” Gunning adds, that while you can pull the bricks apart easily, there were a number of LEGO plates that have amazing tensile strength. “Neil suggested how we could build beams with a system of hollow bricks and joists that played to the compression strength of the bricks and the plates,” Gunning recalls. “We realized then how we could get the floors in and a roof on the house. It was more straightforward than we had expected.”

In actual construction, finite-element analysis is used to determine the limitations of the building materials. But because LEGO is not a known building material, it would have taken upwards of a year to do the proper research and analysis. With only three months to get the house designed and built, the architects had to come up with an alternate solution.

Tests on individual bricks provided some of the required information, and large-scale prototyping helped determine what worked and what did not. “The best way of working out what we could do structurally with the LEGOs was to test the big components and the beams, and see what happened.” They began building beams that could span two meters (about six to seven feet). This was met with a variety of “exciting” experiences, with the early versions collapsing easily.

“We played around with this undulating wall plan, but when we mocked that up, it was a bit too flexible,” Gunning recalls. “One evening we loaded up a whole section mockup of the building, with over half a ton of material, until the beams collapsed. There were thousands of LEGOs on the floor,” recalls Gunning. “All
the LEGOs were fine, so we just picked them up and made something else with them.”

The trick, though, was to conserve the number of bricks being used while making the structure secure. After a month, the group had redesigned the building using hollowed blocks that could support James May’s weight as he walked around the house. However, the production company’s insurers would not allow construction to start unless a parallel timber frame was “sleeved” by the hollow segments. “We then had to redesign the house again to make it work with the timber columns,” says Gunning. “Making the timber coordinate with the LEGO was difficult; the timber column could hit the LEGOs and damage them.”

Building Blocks
The house was designed around the maximum space the architects could create within the limitations of the structural system, which was seven feet wide—not very big. “We had grand ambitions of creating a house where you don’t feel hemmed in by this kind of dimension. We played around with the 3D organization of it in Modo, and came up with a surprisingly spacious living room, bedroom area, big windows looking out to the vineyard, a kitchen, bath … all the things you need to live in it,” says Gunning.

Throughout the design and construction phases, the group had to maintain an accurate count on the number of LEGO bricks being used. “We had to make the house as big as possible with the limited number of LEGOs we had,” says Gunning. Often this was a delicate balancing act. The team had to avoid making the walls too thin from a structural point of view, yet not make it too thick because too many LEGOs would be used in the process. The timber insertion, while difficult to manage, provided the necessary structural depth while utilizing a single-brick layer design for the beams.

Careful planning within Modo was necessary to ensure that the crew did not run out of LEGOs. Also, the architect used the software to come up with an optimal design for the overall structure and the furnishings inside

Alas, after the design was completed, the group did a quick calculation and realized that at least six months of construction work would be needed to assemble the LEGOs. “We would need a lot of people, and you cannot have that on a construction site. It’s way too dangerous,” Gunning says. “We had to think about how we could create something that was clearly a LEGO building and constructible within the timeframe and still have some magic to it.” The answer was to use components: beams and blocks would form the wall elements and could be made easily by the public and then transported to the site, while little “houses” would be used to make the large house.

An announcement was made, and nearly 3000 people answered the call to assemble the bricks into components, each of which were about a foot long and half a foot wide, and eight courses of bricks high, “something young kids can put together quickly without much difficulty,” Gunning says. In a single day, 3000 components were made, “which meant that we had half the house built,” he adds. The components were small enough to move around, yet were not especially fragile. Some components were used for the walls, some even with windows in them, while others formed the roof.

Modo helped the group relay the complex instructions to the public. “You need to explain to people who have no knowledge about building how to put the components together,” he says. “It was important to generate clear, concise instructions, which we did in Modo. A few times we did not do that, and we had to have them redo the sections three to four times until they got them right.”

Realizing they were low on LEGOs, the group asked the public to donate bricks to the cause, and most of the donated pieces were used to augment the original number. Though not usable for load-bearing construction, many of the tiny bricks that were donated were used to construct a striking stained-glass window at the top of the stairs.

Unlike at LEGOland, the house bricks were not glued together because of the time crunch. “The real nightmare was someone breaking things that were already made. Our risk was building the house several times over because of broken pieces,” explains Gunning. A dedicated construction team spent about six weeks assembling the various components at the building site and constructing remaining components. Indeed, some breakage did occur, requiring the crew to put the blocks back together again. “And when things didn’t go right, you could just take apart a few bricks and put them together again,” he adds.

In the end, the two-story house contained large windows, a huge staircase, and hinged doors, a working toilet (with basic plumbing), and a shower. The rooms were furnished, down to the cutlery, plates, and pots and pans in the kitchen—all made of LEGOs. Unfortunately, some of the furniture fell apart when used, but the goal was achieved nevertheless.

So, what was the most daunting aspect of this project? “It was that moment when I realized that three million LEGOs is a lot of LEGOs,” Gunning recalls. “The challenge was then getting them put together in way that you don’t end up having to do it hundreds of times.”

The house was completed in the given timeframe, and it took almost two weeks after completion before May and the film crew could record the sequence, which included May spending the night in the LEGO house. While sturdy, the house was not 100 percent waterproof. “LEGOs are not ideal for longtime construction,” Gunning notes.

That was certainly the case here. After filming the segment, the house was demolished, despite public outcry and a Facebook campaign to save it, and the bricks were donated to LEGOland for use in fundraising events for charity. Still, the project appears to be the largest LEGO construction to date, one for the record books. “I can say that in all my career, I have never done anything quite like this, nor am I likely to do it again,” Gunning says with a chuckle.