Opinions may differ on what it takes to think of constructing a full-sized Lego house. On a spectrum running from “genius” to “arrested childhood,” observers might reasonably locate the idea just about anywhere. But as British TV host James May—a man who inspires the same gamut of responses from viewers—demonstrates in his new book, James May’s Lego House, it takes real ingenuity to actually build one. For starters, no planning department in its right bureaucratic mind would give the go-ahead for a dwelling made entirely of the ubiquitous (300 billion worldwide and counting) Danish children’s building blocks. The insurance premiums were not, as might be expected, brutally high, but that’s only because no insurer was willing to take it on at any price. Then there’s the matter of the necessary components: 3.3 million pieces, mostly the standard eight-stud, 32-mm-long brick model, put a strain on the supply chain, not to mention the labour force. And don’t even start on the issue of fashioning a functioning Lego toilet. In short, there were miles to go and endless questions to answer before May could open his Lego door, climb his Lego stairs and go to sleep in his Lego bed, albeit without wearing Lego pyjamas.
The genesis of the project came from the fertile imagination of the 47-year-old May, co-host of the BBC automotive show Top Gear, victor over chef Gordon Ramsay in an infamous animal penis eating contest during a 2007 episode of the foul-mouthed Ramsay’s F-Word TV series, and all-round champion of toys-for-grown-boys. In 2009, May, a passionate evangelist for what he considers “real” toys—the ones from his childhood, as opposed to the virtual toys and games of the video era—created a six-part series called James May’s Toy Stories. After crafting a plastic model of a Second World War Spitfire fighter plane, a Plasticine garden, a Meccano footbridge and a plastic slot-car racing track—all constructed from traditional children’s play kits but made fully life-sized—it was on to the Lego project. (The final episode saw the construction of a 16-km railway from model train materials.)
Like all of May’s toy projects, the Lego house depended upon an army of volunteers. Some, like architect Barnaby Gunning and interior designer Christina Fallah, were experts, but most were needed simply to lend a helping hand. After May realized that urban planning permission was not going to happen, he found a Surrey winery willing to provide a plot of land. When Gunning and May went to visit the vineyard, the architect noted he was still rather uneasy about working with a material whose “greatest merit lies in its ability to come apart easily.” Gunning soon realized that his original idea—walls made of a single “skin” of bricks and therefore only 16 mm thick—was not going to hold up a house, especially not when May was inside it. (May had his own level of nervousness: right up until his formal entry for a single night’s sleep, he kept mulling over Gunning’s cautious judgment that everything “should” be safe.)
The house was going to require super-bricks: hollow Lego modular blocks, each one 12 of the eight-stud bricks long, six wide and eight high: 272 bricks in total. And that meant, May realized, “either hundreds and hundreds of days or hundreds and hundreds of people.” So he made a televised call to the British public for volunteers, and the nation’s Lego fanatics responded like boat owners at the Dunkirk evacuation. On Aug. 1, 2009, hundreds lined up by 5:30 a.m. for the first day of construction. Despite a second appeal, this time for people not to come, some 4,000 eventually turned up at the winery. The site could only cope with 1,100, and the rest had to be sent away. The lucky few were put to work snapping together the modules in solid black, white, blue, yellow or red.
By then Gunning’s design had evolved considerably, based on Lego’s own mathematical logic. The eight-stud brick “scales upward in multiples of two,” he had noticed, “and if you multiply each of a brick’s dimensions by 256, which is two to the power of eight, you get a shape about two metres in height from floor to floor, slightly smaller than usual but quite nice.” With that discovery, he told May he had a 1:256 scale model of the two-storey home ready to show, and handed over two Lego blocks snapped together, one on top of the other: “Here’s your model.” The rectangular house, then, would be austere in its shape, but riotous in its colours.
Meanwhile, interior designer Christina Fallah, hampered (in her own account) by a Barbie-filled and Lego-less childhood, was playing with bricks in her office, trying to create tiny furniture models that would neither fall apart when used nor be lost against the wall’s bands of colour. Blue and white kitchen chairs kept collapsing under May’s weight until Fallah found a way to hide some reinforcements within the layers of blocks. (May still managed, on his night of occupancy, to crash through his red swivel chair.) Fallah was more successful in her second aim. Her household appliances stood out in an instantly recognizable way through the use of black eight-studs to form letters on lighter backgrounds: bricks spelled out JUG on the white milk container; CHOP ran across the yellow cutting board; and two otherwise puzzling white towers bear S and P.
May had his supersized modules, his interior designs and his construction volunteers ready when he ran into the insurance obstacle. No existing data on Lego as a home-building material meant no insurance company would confirm the architectural plans were sound, and without insurance the project could not legally proceed. Insurers demanded a wooden frame, ignoring May’s despairing cry that it “would completely defeat our object of using Lego as a building material.” Then Gunning saved the day: if the modules were formed around wooden posts and beams, but did not touch them, the house would be insurable and still made of self-supporting Lego.
The house, cement- and drywall-free as it was, began to rise rapidly, until a final crisis occurred: a shortage of bricks in the approved colours. First, Gunning and the chief builder—a bald young man described by May as “just like Bob the Builder except his name is Victor and he’s missing the snap-on hairpiece”—tried to convince May to turn half the upper floor into a brick-saving veranda. “Do me the enormity of shutting up,” an unimpressed May snapped at Victor.
The next day Victor, an evident believer that construction deadlines trump design principles, was on site in the absence of client, architect and designer. He ordered the workers to start adding modules of whatever colour lay to hand. Fallah then arrived and, after carrying on in a mild meltdown about the “awful Winnie-the-Pooh brown colour,” made them tear down the new section, causing a two-day delay—272 bricks can go on as a single module, but they come off one 32-mm brick at a time.
Before open warfare erupted, an emergency truck from Denmark arrived with a half-million bricks of the right colours. After six weeks of construction, four more than planned, the house was finished.
On the great day of moving in, May entered another dimension, one that felt, he writes, “not like stepping into a massive house made out of Lego, but like being shrunk and stepping into a tiny Lego-scale house.”
From an open newspaper (featuring a Page 3 Sunshine Girl with strangely square nipples) to a cat modelled after Fusker (the May family pet), it was all Lego. As for the tricky problem of the toilet, May rightly calls the device—complete with ballcock and flushing mechanism made of Lego, the work of a Lego fanatic named Kevin Cooper—the house’s pièce de résistance. May’s Lego shower leaked, and his Lego sink leaked, but not his Lego toilet: Cooper had lined it with vaseline. Despite a night spent on a brick-hard pillow, May was delighted. His home had answered a question he recalled his six-year-old self obsessively asking: “If you had enough Lego, could you build a house?”
Too bad he had to tear it down. The winery wanted its land back and the Legoland theme park at Windsor, to which May had planned to transfer the house, was deterred by the $100,000 cost. Five days after one man spent one night in it, dismantling began. The 3.3 million components were donated to charity. Or almost all of them. Before demolition someone stole Fusker (the brick cat, not the living one). Somewhere, and not just in James May’s imagination, a part of the Lego house lives on.