Canadian Consulting Engineer

Addicted

At some point most kids set aside their Lego sets. The colourful toy construction blocks are given away, sold in garage sales or closeted for another generation....

December 1, 2005   By Nordahl Flakstad

At some point most kids set aside their Lego sets. The colourful toy construction blocks are given away, sold in garage sales or closeted for another generation.

Growing up in Cold Lake, Alberta, John Koob, P.Eng. stuck with Lego longer than most teenagers. But when he began computer engineering studies at the University of Alberta, he figured it was time to put the blocks away. Then one day, after graduating with his B.Sc. and while working for a telecommunications software company, he found himself in a Toys “R” Us store. He saw a Lego kit for a truck-mounted crane, impulsively plonked down $130, and in days had assembled the model complete with grappling hook.

Koob himself was hooked — the love of Lego had returned. He bought more blocks and soon was building models — like a grain elevator with working parts — which were considerably more complex than the ready-to-build kits. Seeing a stationary crane on top of a high-rise building across from his Edmonton apartment, Koob thought, “I could build that.” A year and 2,500 Lego pieces later, Koob had constructed a seven-foot model of the crane in his living room, complete with a remote-controlled microcomputer.

Koob, now 33 and completing his doctorate in computer memory design, recalls asking himself: “Am I the only person in my mid-20s buying Lego and putting it together?”

After logging onto the internet in search of some specialized pieces, however, he discovered company. There were Lego builder groups and lots of adult aficionados out there — including some in Edmonton. The local connection led to a face-to-face gathering at an Edmonton pizza parlour and formation of the Northern Alberta Lego Users Group (NALUG). It is loosely affiliated with similar groups in Canadian cities like Vancouver, Calgary, Ottawa, Montreal, Halifax and Toronto, as well as cities in the U.S. and elsewhere.

The Edmonton Legoists found strength in numbers and soon began tackling ambitious joint ventures. They built a 21-foot scale replica of the High Level Bridge, an Edmonton landmark, for display at a model train show.

Last year, to mark Alberta’s 2005 centenary, NALUG began its most ambitious project, a 1/40 scale model of Alberta’s Provincial Legislature Building. First publicly displayed at the Great Edmonton Train Show in September, the completed model of the Beaux-Arts structure required 120,000 Lego pieces.

The project entailed ambitious planning, procurement, production and project management, led by Koob and fellow NALUG member Chris Gray. Besides developing a modular design that could be moved, a key challenge was finding the pieces that matched the legislature’s beige sandstone exterior. Lego hobbyists pride themselves on only using Lego parts. The quest for authenticity led Koob to hunt down 64 rare sandstone-coloured wheel hubs from a specialty Lego dealer in Germany. The hubs form the columns on the model’s exterior. It has all added to the cost of parts, which Koob places at $15,000.

A key to completing the project was “mass producing” components such as the building’s dozens of standardized windows. Once Koob developed an efficient design, he farmed out the assembly of the windows to others.

The inevitable question is why Koob ended up in computer rather than civil engineering.

“I was always interested in civil engineering, especially structural engineering,” he says. “I could have gone into civil engineering and been a happy man.”

Still, he seems perfectly happy pursuing his structural engineering ambitions at a Lego scale.

Nordahl Flakstad is a freelance writer based in Edmonton.


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