lego society
All Bricks, No Mortar: The House that James Built

Improvised or as a set, whether a comfortable suburban bungalow for the typical nuclear LEGO® family or a tiki pineapple to shelter our LEGO Spongebob Squarepants, making a house with LEGO bricks is something most of us have done at least once in our childhoods. It seems the obvious thing to do with a toy that is essentially a System of miniature bricks, and since window and door bricks were first produced it has been a tradition and a staple of LEGO lovers. When James May of the BBC’s Top Gear announced this year that he planned to make a full-sized house exclusively with LEGO bricks, it grabbed the nation’s attention immediately. Adults were as excited as children, the prospect awakening nostalgia and a childlike glee about the sheer fun of the project. We loved the idea because of its unabashed, extravagant silliness; we embraced the idea because we have all secretly wanted to do exactly the same since we graduated from DUPLO sets.

May, known to fans as ‘Captain Slow’, is more commonly associated with cars, but he decided to embark upon this project as part of a series on the most popular and classic children’s toys as a statement on the lost art of genuine ‘play’ with toys that inspire creativity and active participation. As the series’ epic finale (to air on the 20th of December), stemming from a pub conversation about what one would make with unlimited LEGO bricks, May decided to construct a habitable house with LEGO bricks. It was to contain functioning furniture and would be constructed by a team of volunteers. Work on the site, in the Denbies Wine Estate in Dorking, Surrey (UK), began at the beginning of August this year and May had a staggering 2500-plus people asking to volunteer on the construction. Of these, 1200 worked with May to transform 3.2 million LEGO bricks into a two-storey technicolour abode to rival any show home, with a sweeping view of the vineyard, spacious interior and no undesirable neighbours.

The walls of the house were composed of over 2000 large hollow ‘bricks’ made by the volunteers, each containing 272 smaller LEGO bricks; as Barnaby Gunning, the architect for the build, explains, “I felt that we should find a way to get many people to put together easily manageable components and this fitted with James May’s aim of rediscovering the joys of playing with toys. Our idea for the house was that the overall building should be made by combining thousands of smaller ‘houses’, some with windows, some as roof pyramids and many simply acting as hollow blocks.” Gunning and the design team spent hours working on making a stable life-sized structure out of LEGO bricks. Using construction blocks which are expressly designed so that they can be pulled apart by a 5-year-old, and with a rule of ‘no glue’, this was no mean feat. One of the structural engineers, Eva Wates, comments that the issue of scale alone raised major questions: how to make a human-sized, human-supporting structure out of something more conventionally used to house men two inches tall?

The house could therefore not have the features of a bricks-and-mortar dwelling. Making large windows was ‘incredibly difficult’ and Wates found that “there are some things that would be really difficult to do sensibly in LEGO bricks without cheating – like long cantilevers or balconies and having lots of openings in the walls. So we didn’t have things like that and instead focused on the good properties of LEGO bricks to make something that was attractive architecturally but still worked structurally.” Planning out a house made of LEGO bricks became a task to design a house specifically for LEGO bricks. Designs were revised or completely redone, the house grew out of experimentation and ingenuity. The team took all challenges in their stride and created a building that was not just built with but also celebrated its very unusual construction material.

As the house was built and developed its eventual structure, it was the job of Christina Fallah, interior designer, to work on the inside of the house and make it a palace fit for a floppy-haired British toy enthusiast. Drawing on artist Piet Mondrian’s work for its block colour and clean lines, Fallah created an interior bursting with vibrant hues, with sleek and stud-free surfaces to make the LEGO® bricks look ‘like glass’. To make sure that each piece of furniture stood out from the vividly striped walls, they were made in blocks of colour, but with an impressive attention to detail: the tube of toothpaste has a striped gob of paste oozing out of it, and the LEGO newspaper even has a very risqué page 3 spread. Designers worked hard to make sure that the furniture was usable, using a hollow waffle-structure inside things like chairs to make them strong and eventually producing, at May’s insistence, an impressive working LEGO shower and flushable LEGO toilet.

The construction of the house took a lot longer than planned, lasting about a month, and was by no means easy; not only did the design and construction team have to battle with the properties of an unfamiliar medium, but also the scrutiny of an unconvinced insurance company, meaning that changes to the design were frequent and they were finally even forced to build a timber structure into the walls to satisfy insurers’ concerns about the safety of the building. Tim Foster, a volunteer on the build, describes the atmosphere at the site: “Some people got really attached to set bits and got upset if it needed to be changed or got broken. It took a good few weeks until everyone started thinking on the same terms and when we did the whole thing started to work really well.” Unfortunately but unsurprisingly the weather was another issue: “The site was really exposed, so we bore the brunt of any bad weather which usually killed the mood on site.” Nonetheless the project brought LEGO fans together in a team working for something with a purely aesthetic, entertaining and playful goal, which is perhaps why it inspired such dedicated effort. One fan even donated to the house a beautiful LEGO cat dubbed Fusker, who proudly inhabited the house as a version of James May’s own cat, up until he was heartlessly stolen by a member of the public when the house was opened.

Finished, the house was a magnificent LEGO mansion, full of creature comforts. Everyone who worked on it was delighted by the final structure; Gunning speaks of how, “the house, close up, could be seen as an absolutely vast city block made of LEGO bricks. The windows in particular gave the appearance of some immense city office tower. A stained glass window on the first floor made out of thousands of tiny 2x1 bricks - some see-through, some coloured and some translucent - was stunningly beautiful.” Going against expectations that it would look simply like a blown-up version of a toy house, the building was a breathtaking, glossy and bright structure which excited as much pleasure in its functionality – the smooth LEGO door-hinges, for example – as in its looks.

It was a tragedy, then, when the vineyard announced that they would need the space on which it was built to harvest their grapes. Desperately trying to find a buyer and with over 7,500 people on the Facebook group urging for the house to be saved, May launched an online appeal to save the house after Legoland Windsor were unable to take the house as a permanent exhibit. Sadly no-one could save the house, and on September 22nd it was dismantled. The bricks are now with LEGOLAND Windsor as a ‘LEGO® set for the nation’, with annual builds planned that will raise money for The National Autistic Society.

The legend that was the real LEGO house has thus become something new and with a new, exciting purpose, rather apt considering the nature of LEGO as a building material that can be made and remade for limitless purposes; when asked whether LEGO bricks lend themselves well to large-scale construction, Eva Wates replied, “One of Lego’s wonderful properties is that that you can build whatever you like and then take it apart and build something completely different with the same blocks. In that sense it lends itself well to modern construction – it’s reusable and recyclable. You’d never have to put any bricks in landfill – you could just ask kids to come and dismantle it and take it home if they wanted!” For this reason, the end to this saga is somewhat perfect, and the house will forever be remembered at its best. As Tim Foster explains, “It was sad to see it knocked down, but I feel that the since the LEGO is still being used as a massive usable resource at Legoland by the public it justifies the deconstruction. The public couldn't, or at least weren't supposed to go inside it, and the outside did no justice to the inside, so with the actual bricks still in the public domain, I think it’s a win-win situation. Hopefully it will inspire another novel build in the future.”