Author: Paul Mullett
Lego® was a major part of my childhood. My bedroom floor was often strewn with countless bricks as I devoted days to the planning and building of my next creation. The brick-based system was so versatile that the only limitation was my own imagination. By the time I had replaced it with more adolescent (and less constructive) pursuits I had designed and built towers, cranes, space ports, oil rigs, aircraft carriers, docks, submarines, trucks, tanks, racing cars, spaceships and recreated scenes from many of my favourite Spielberg movies.
At the heart of this creative outlet, and the hours of fun, was a simple but incredibly important invention embodied in the original 1958 patent by Godtfred Christiansen “….building bricks or blocks adapted to be connected together by means of projections extending from the faces of the elements and arranged so as to engage protruding portions of an adjacent element when two such elements are assembled ... thus providing for a vast variety of combinations of the bricks for making toy structures of many different kinds and shapes.”
Nowadays Lego is significantly more varied and complex than in the 1950s (or 1980s), however its patented brick-to-brick connection is fundamental to all its models. The product provides a masterclass in how the simultaneous balance of flexibility and standardisation can deliver almost unlimited creativity.
Gen-X Lego nostalgists like me may be unaware that the digital age has brought with it an ability to pre-build any Lego model in a virtual environment. Using Lego Studio software it is now possible to design, build and realistically render your Lego creation, drawing on a library of all the bricks available. What’s more, the software will do a stability check to ensure your design is stable, and when finished you can create your own instruction booklet. If you then want to turn your design into reality you can order the bricks you need online using BrickLink – a global Lego marketplace.
I couldn’t help but consider this as a template for the built environment design and construction industries and, whilst it would be a gross simplification to suggest that these industries can be dumbed down to a single connection type, product or material, there is much to learn from and aspire to in the simplicity and usability of the Lego system of building and its digital platform.
The Lego software provides an effective virtual design and construction platform directly connected to the supply chain via its digital marketplace.
This marketplace works by virtue of the digital platform but more fundamentally because it has a fully defined library of components. Of course, Lego has the advantage of a single set of components controlled via one ultimate supplier, however the key factor is standardised componentisation. Lego allows designers to interchange components and explore creative ways to achieve design objectives all the while understanding that the components in the library are compatible, have a given specification and a known level of performance.
The built environment sector is already very familiar with modular construction. A vast array of modular systems is available across the globe, mostly responding to and delivering within geographic markets or for niche remits. However, there is little commonality or compatibility, and intellectual property is usually tightly controlled preventing deliberate cross-pollination of ideas or systems. Whilst efforts have been made to digitise the supply chain for vertically integrated proprietary component systems (e.g. the now defunct Katerra’s Apollo Software) few, if any, digital platforms exist that can facilitate direct access to component libraries through design, construction and fabrication workflows more broadly.
However, this could be about to change. Its early days but driven by top tier developers who want to do things better, a Lego-system approach may be coming enabled by a new generation of digital platforms.
Digital platforms, such as Lendlease’s Podium, are under development that could ultimately facilitate virtual design and construction of multiple building systems, using libraries of new or existing components and digital tools for automating design, optimisation, modelling and fabrication. By working with industry partners and through the incremental region-by-region onboarding of the supply chain, such platforms have the potential to transform how the industry operates, moving closer to a digital componentised construction approach.
So, whilst I have to accept my childhood ambition to recreate the Millennium Falcon will never scale to the real world, I do have one request for the future of the built environment sector. Please, be.like.Lego.
Paul Mullett, Chartered Fellow of the Institution of Civil Engineers, Fellow of the Chartered Institute of Arbitrators and registered Professional Simulation Engineer with NAFEMS. Group Engineering and Technology Director at Robert Bird Group, with over 25 years' experience as a professional consultant in a variety of technical and managerial roles, Paul has a proven track record of providing sound, considered advice to clients based on a practical, technically grounded approach to engineering with a commitment to quality and risk management. Paul’s project portfolio is highly varied including advanced structural analysis, high-rise buildings, bridge strengthening, forensic engineering, delivery of mega-projects and complex construction engineering.