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What comes first, the Lego bricks or the Lego master?
The modular construction movement is trying to figure out this very same issue. What comes first, is it the modules or the modular design? Construction already uses modular or unitized building materials as its basis for the design. Whether you are dealing with a literal brick, lumber, plywood, or piping we use predictable sizes and shapes that complement each other and fit together well.
The big question is, how do we encourage more companies to go into modular building components?
Eddie and Tyler dive into an interesting discussion this week based around a blog post Eddie has been working on.
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Tyler: Welcome to the Construction Brothers Podcast. I'm your host, Tyler Campbell, and with me like he is every week: My brother, Eddie Campbell.
Eddie: What's up, Tyler?
Tyler: Not much, Eddie. Well this week, what comes first: The Lego bricks, or the Lego master?
Tyler: One of the things that we like to talk about a lot here on the show is modularization and prefab. Now Eddie, you recently, again, wrote another blog and had some original thought around this idea. I wanted to kind of pick your brain. What did you write about, man?
Eddie: Well, I have thought a lot—as I know a lot of people have, so this isn't original at all—but Lego is something that comes up nonstop when it comes to anything that we're thinking about, Oh, I'm gonna snap these together, I'm going to take this unit and put it into that unit and then I'm going to use those units and I'm going to build them up. I'm going to build, you know, prefabricated or modular. A lot of times that will be described as, “and they'll snap together just like Lego.” And that is what I'm kind of building on here. The thought occurred to me that, you know, the Lego masters, they already have the bricks. They are provided all of the pieces. And then, you know, they've got a task that they're let go on. What would happen if those guys didn't have any of those bricks? Like what would happen if there were no bricks or basic units of construction for them, and they actually had to invent the brick?
Tyler: So you're talking about standardization, kind of.
Eddie: Yeah, to a degree.
Tyler: Yeah, so standardizing bricks and having specific units that you could plug in, that sort of thing?
Eddie: I'm talking about the basic building block. There are basic building blocks of Lego that the Lego masters build off of, and those are the bricks. And if those basic building blocks weren't established, there would be a few things that happen. So in my blog, I've called out a few of those things. I thought that, you know, we would probably need some rules. And I'm pitting this, just so everybody knows, I'm kind of pitting this in the “Lego Masters” show. So, you know, there'd be some rules that you'd have to add, right? So the rules would need to confine, like, what can we realistically create? So if I don't have a basic building block, what am I allowed to do? Because if you say, “I want you to build something, Lego master,” and there's not a basic building block, well then I have to know what can I create? How can I create it? Can I get it here?
Tyler: That leaves a lot more questions.
Eddie: There's a lot of questions. That's right. And so that is one thing, like you would have to have some rules of engagement there. Next thing that I see is that builds could get a lot crazier, and a lot more abstract. Which you see, you know, my kids, they love Lego. And it's interesting how they've broken off these different lines and different things where, you know, Lego, it doesn't just look like a brick building anymore. It might look like a dragon. It might look like a character from Harry Potter. It might look like Lego Friends. It could take on all of these things. And there are a lot of different shapes, they're not just square bricks anymore. So they do fabricate abstract shapes. They're not all squares and rectangles. I think you would have the potential of seeing a lot more of that as people's imaginations went, and they went, Oh, well, they've gotta interlock. I know that's a constraint, but it could be shaped anything, any way I need it to, to get the thing built. Another thing is that you might not necessarily see bricks as the primary building block. So you might think through, because even though I come up with these custom parts, you might think you're gonna go, Hmm, well maybe I can make triangles my basic building block. And then I could do really cool things with triangles. I think about, there's another toy that we like to play with in our house called Magna-Tiles, and the Magna-Tiles have triangles. My son, my little boy Nathan, he's three, and so his favorite part is knocking them down. And I kind of love the process because I have these basic building blocks, like they're just—you guys that may not have seen it, picture like kind of a quarter-inch thick square that has magnets all around the perimeter and those magnets stick to the magnets on other squares. So you have squares that are maybe six by six, and then you'd have squares that are three by three. And you have triangles that work into that same unitized three inch base. Some of those are tall, some of those are short. And so you can imagine you start taking these shapes and you start piecing them together. So one time I'll just build a building that's a rectangle, and I'll just stack. And I'm like, I'm going vertical. I'm going like— And I can get five, six feet with this thing and Nathan, he'll come in and just wreck it. You know, he just loves watching them crash down. But then, all right, well, we're done with that one. I get to build it again. So I start picking up the triangles, and I start building in a zigzag, but I'm going vertical in a zigzag, because I'm using those triangles and I'm counterweighting and doing things and I'm having a good old time just ‘cause I'm a building nerd. And then Nathan knocks that one down and then back I go again and I build something else with those units. The thought occurred to me while I was doing this. It was just like, Whoa, I have these basic shapes that I use. And those basic shapes, they form ideas. I know what I'm building with. Therefore, my ideas swirl around those basic units. And just in the same way that with Lego, we have bricks and the bricks kind of formed the basis of a design for the Lego master. That's the same thing that we would see maybe in construction. So I don't want to quite let that out of the bag yet, but I'm getting there. The other thing would be, cost of creation would be much higher for these basic components, because everything's custom. So where I've got a brick that I can just roll off again and again and again, and I can do that, you know, in a six peg, an eight peg, a four peg, a two peg. I can do that again and again and again, that becomes my basis of design as a Lego master. I don't necessarily have that constraint anymore, but then I also have custom pieces that I'm making, right? So those custom pieces, since there's no previous method of manufacturing, those are going to cost a little more to build. And so those are some of the thoughts I had on Lego.
Tyler: It strikes me that, you know, growing up, I think all of us can relate to this, that we played with things like Lego, like Erector sets, like Tinkertoys. We had all of these different building blocks around specific systems. Really, we were able to create some amazing things with those simple building blocks that all work together. So what you're trying to get at is saying, Hey, why are we not looking at how we built when we were kids? And like saying, why don't we systematize some of these different building blocks and you know, erector sets or things like that, that we're used to using, so that we can build some amazing things cheaper and more effectively. I mean, cheaper has a bad connotation, but you, you know what I mean?
Eddie: Well, cheaper and modular actually have a bad connotation, depending on how they're discussed. And I'll pump the brakes because I feel like, yeah, you see where I'm going. But you're getting ahead of me a little bit. Before we get there, I want to point out that construction is basically modular anyway. Construction is unitized because I know what size a brick is, like a real brick. I know what size a two by four is—not two by four, by the way (laughter). I know if I'm using masonry blocks, if I'm using aluminum, extrusions, if I'm— Whatever it is, each little facet of the industry, whether it be plywood or whether it's some other type of building material like conduit, or PVC pipe, or anything else we use, we have an expected unitized size that works in unison with other materials. They compliment other materials well. And just in the same way, you mentioned Tinkertoys. That's a great example. The kids, they'll take that Tinkertoy and we'll be playing around. And in one minute that Tinkertoy could be an electric guitar or a microphone. They’ll love it.
Tyler: (laughter) We’ve all done it.
Eddie: You know, I mean, you can make the microphone thing out of the Tinkertoy. Drumsticks. There are so many different things that you do, like just in musical instruments that you can make out of them. But then, you also got all the other things you can build. So I could build a pyramid. They're all based on that knuckle that's formed by that little round wheel that has all of the different holes in it and the stick and how long that stick is. Because I mean, I can build some pretty cool cars out of that thing. And interestingly enough, just like Lego, Tinkertoy also, they did start adapting. So I mean, like I said earlier, there are dragons and different things that you can build as a part of Lego. With Tinkertoy, they started bringing in rubberized hose looking things so that you could attach those. And they'd have a little attachment mechanisms for that. They'd have wheels that they prefabricate, and now I've got a wheel. So I can't, I'm not getting just like almost to a car and then I don't really have real wheels. I can get all the way to a car, and they sell me the wheels, too. Well, there's some savvy marketing there, ‘cause now I can sell a wheel set instead of just a tin of your, you know, basic sticks and knuckles. We think about these things in the building world all the time.
Tyler: Well, we talked to Benjamin Crosby and man, he's a Lego nut. Like he's all over that stuff.
Eddie: And I love it.
Tyler: Yeah, and it's great. I think that Lego and Erector sets and Tinkertoys and all these things, like they really resonate with us as builders.
Eddie: I grew up playing with them.
Tyler: Yeah, we grew up playing with them. And for some reason we've kind of forgotten them.
Eddie: The thing is, I'm pointing out the fact that these little unitized pieces of construction are used every day, and they're expected measurements. Now, trying to land the plane a little bit here and make my point: You have a lot of construction users out there that are really excited about modular design, modular construction, kitting, prefab. But there aren't a whole lot of companies out there that are widely known that are making their modules available. So that I just know, Hey, if I want a prefab bathroom, I go to this company, I reach for that thing, I pull it off the shelf and pop, I plug it in. Just like Lego bricks, where I just connect it, I interlock it and it falls into place. What we have right now is less that, because most designers are not designing modular means of construction in as just like, Here's my block, here's what I do. So they're out there, but they're not as widely known.
Tyler: So diving into this a little bit further, and I might be reaching here: Are you saying that even down to a, you know, we'll say a toilet. Would a toilet be a modular component?
Eddie: Well, sure it is.
Eddie: Because there are things I know about a toilet. There are dimensional things that I know about a toilet, like as to whether it's a residential toilet, whether it's whether it's up to code for accessibility. And so, I mean, the base of a toilet is predictable.
Tyler: So the issue that we have is not having those dimensions and systems in a place that we can easily grab them and plug them in.
Eddie: To a degree. But it's also the availability of the actual hard asset, like the actual ability to go and get that. Because— I'm a designer, and I've got a building and I want to be innovative. And I'm thinking about it, and I think I love the idea of having a fully plumbed and totally electrified bathroom. And I want to bring that out there and set it. What do I do? Maybe I go do the Internet research and I go try to do the brain damage of finding the company. Now I’ve got to find the pricing. Now I've got to think about the availability, the logistics, where they're located. So that's a thing. In many instances, though, I might not even find a modular thing for what I want to make modular, or I don't find enough resources that I feel like I can buy enough of them cost-effectively where that particular manufacturer could keep up with my demand. If I'm building a very large building, let's say a very large hotel. I mean, you can think of a building that's got like one or two bathrooms and go, Oh yeah, that'd be cool. But what about anything that has rooms in it, basically—you know, multifamily, or hotel, a prison, hospital—well I want to be able to make something repeatable. In order to get that done, companies have had to lean over into vertically integrated companies that are actually providing the manufacturer for that. Because there are not, there's not enough prevalence to make that a known brick, to make that a known building block.
And what I'm arguing for is that that is actually incurring risk for going modular. And it's discouraging people from doing it. If I know that there is a cost implication, that there are potential logistical breakdowns, there's a chance that things won't play together quite like I wanted, or that I've got heavier coordination in order to get this brick to plug in because the clever, basic interlocking brick thing is kind of done away with when I've got this custom thing that I'm plugging in. So now all of a sudden this modular thing is custom. If it doesn't go well, and I am the specifier of that thing, I'm kind of going out on a limb and I'm pretty worried about it getting sawn off behind me. And so that's why I think you see companies that are larger and more vertically integrated, they're actually taking off with this idea and just saying, Okay, we're going to take over and we're going to internalize the process of figuring out all the logistics costing and manufacture of these modular means of construction. And we're going to use the economies of scale to get that done.
Tyler: Buying in bulk.
Eddie: Buying in bulk, yeah.
Tyler: And buying up the manufacturer.
Eddie: Yeah, kind of doing the Walmart routine.
Tyler: Cutting out the middlemen.
Eddie: Yeah. But not all construction has a billion bathrooms in it. Not all construction has that economy of scale. And I would still argue that modular construction makes sense, because if I've got those building blocks and I know about them, I know how to plug them in, if I know how they interlock with the other systems around, then I can use those in more basic builds. I think we're kind of at this little fork in the road here. Fork in the road is probably a bad way of putting it. I think we're trying to push through something as an industry. We see a good idea out there for all of this prefab and modular means of construction. But as we're trying to push towards it, it's really hard to get it done on anything that's like, what I'll say is “normal.” Because you know the attitude towards incurring that risk as a designer or an owner or whatever, it's kind of like, yeah, but not on my project. That all sounds really good. You know, you bring it up in the meeting and you're like the ideas guy, and you bring it up and you're like, Oh, we can do all this stuff, this modular and everybody's loving it. And they're like, okay, do you know where to buy it? How to get it? You know, the means of it? Yeah, not on my project. I don't think I want to do that, because that's a risk. Let's just stick, let's stick to the old roads here and let's do what we know. And then we're right back in the old loop. So I think that coming up with a way of making some of these modular designs more of a prevalent unit is kind of what I'm arguing for here. That, you know, let's do something to kind of bring down the point of entry, the cost of entry, so that more people are willing to venture into this in the industry. So that's the argumentation. I'm curious—do you think it makes sense?
Tyler: I think it makes sense. And I think you're seeing a lot of people do it. Like we talked to Pete, he was, you know, with Katerra—
Eddie: A vertically integrated company.
Tyler: They’re a vertically integrated company, and that seems to be a big buzz word right now. So you've got them, they're leaning heavily on mass timber, but that's not the only building block that they use. They'll also use steel. They'll also use light gauge framing, something like that. So I think they're going with building blocks that they understand, that they know, that they've used before. And I think that they're able to shape those into a lot of different forms. Now, one pushback that I might have is that, yeah, we're going to be using the same systems every single time. You run the risk of having the same looking building everywhere you go. And over time, that's going to age poorly, right, ‘cause design changes over time.
Eddie: Okay. I'm going to go back to Clifton. Like this was a discussion we had with him, and it's amazing how we think of, like, we think of housing that way, but we don't think of cars that way. What I'm driving at is if you get out in the street and you look around, I mean, what's the chances of you seeing a car that you've never ever seen before in your life?
Tyler: I don't know, have you seen the Cybertruck? (laughter)
Eddie: I mean, I have, but not driving around a whole lot. But are they going to manufacture one?
Tyler: No, they're going to manufacture millions.
Eddie: They're going to set up manufacturing millions, and then everybody, all those millions are going to feel special because they've got a Cybertruck. Even though there's a million people that own it. They're gonna be like, Aw, this is my Cybertruck. Will it age? Yep. Some things get retro and they come back around. Some things are kept up with better than others. And I'm not arguing for a throwaway, but I am arguing that maybe our mentality is the thing that's keeping us from just accepting the fact that yeah, I'd be okay with that. Because I think that the price of construction, if this drives the price of construction down, and then like my timeframe for getting into something comes down too, and it's economically and environmentally friendly, like this is a more sustainable option. If all of those buttons are pushed and we're like, yes, this is a good thing for all of that, then I might be willing to make a sacrifice so I can have a cheap, sustainable home where I want it and figure, yeah, that's the new way people are building things.
Tyler: I think there's a longer life cycle with buildings though. We look at these cars that are out in the street and we, you know, we expect them to have a life cycle of maybe 20 years before they finally hit the junkyard. You know what I mean? So 20 years for a building is not very long, but you and I both know that a car that was built 20 years ago versus a car built today looks completely different. Like, there are similarities. There are similarities, you know, gas pedal is still there. It still has a steering wheel. It still has, you know, control knobs one way or the other for specific doodads. It still has vents for our AC. So yes, there are commonalities there. So I think using this method that you're talking about, you have to be careful not to lock yourself into one toilet, one door, one handle. Because over time, those will not change with the design practices and the design styles over the span of 20 years.
Eddie: I love your rebuttal, because I think it’s a great point.
Tyler: Yeah. I think it is, too.
Eddie: You would, ‘cause you made it. (laughter) No, I really do. Because Lego didn't start out with all of the custom parts. Tinkertoy didn't start out with all of the custom parts. Ford Motor Company didn't start out with all of the custom parts. You can have anything you want—as long as it’s black. They started out with something that could systematize and manufacture. Then they started working on the customization of that thing. We are not at customization yet.
Tyler: We need to work on the practice.
Eddie: Yeah, we've got to work on the basic building blocks. So that's what I'm arguing for is the bricks. Give me the basic Lego bricks so that I can go out and start building with stuff. And when you think about it, like, I mean, wall framing? If I panelize a wall and I learn how to integrate plumbing and electrical and I come up with a clever means of plugging plumbing and electrical together in the field, like a clever connector, I'll say a quick connect for both of them. If I come up with a way of doing that, that's not, I mean, a wall's not going out of style.
Tyler: Right, right. The paint—
Eddie: You know, the building may, the paint may.
Tyler: The paint may look different, yeah.
Eddie: The outlet might want to change. But there are things that you can, even within a home, that you can swap out and update, right? But the guts of the wall and the gyp on it, aren't going out of style. I just want to come up with a better means of panelizing that sucker. The basic bathroom. You know, if I'm building a gang toilet in some commercial establishment, I mean, how ageless does that really need to be? I don't see toilets changing so dramatically in the next 50 years that people are going to walk in and go, what do I do with that? (laughter) There's gotta be some similarity. There has to be, because if you walk into a bathroom that was made 50 years ago, right, you're not lost. Oh gosh, where do I go? You figure it out, dude.
Tyler: Where does this go? I don't… (laughter)
Eddie: The only complications are when you go in the men's room and there's a number one and a number two. (laughter) I mean, but we digress.
Tyler: Maybe the toilet idea is not the greatest way to explain this. But funny. It might be a very crappy example.
Tyler: Ah, but you know, the idea is there. You know, the light switches are, you can pick anything you want. Doors, door knobs, flooring, you know, the type of brick that you use, the ceiling tiles that you use, the specific light, like the sconces and everything that goes into your house or into your building. Those can, all those can all just shift around and change. But they, I mean, they all have basically the same function.
Eddie: So I'm going to kind of define what we call modular right now. What I think we are calling modular could basically be, air quotes, “more assembled.” The unitized things we already use—
Tyler: Building blocks, great, okay. So I have something that I can say to that, because if you go back and you do watch “Lego Masters,“ you'll notice that, you know, you have these two people and they're at their desk, like we are, and they've got all of their building blocks and they have this grand vision of like, we're going to make a monster that is going to rip through this downtown city or whatever. And so they will start by saying, Okay, so Eddie, you are going to work on the monster. And me, Tyler, I am going to work on the buildings. Right? And then you'll see them go to separate sides of the table and start putting together things. And just, you know, you'll see me over here working on my little building and then this little building and some trees around it and like really making it pretty. And then you're over there and you're, you know, making sure that the monster's spitting fire and you know, you've kinda got this vision for it. But at the end of the day, we put it all together and everything starts coming together in this picture that tells a story like a building. I think a great way to kind of land this whole thought process is that, you know, we all have materials that we're working with and they all work together some way, but why can't we act more like “Lego Masters”? We can be building on different ends of the table and put everything together and make our art.
Eddie: It's really a matter of deciding that when we come back together, everything's gonna fit. That we're going to work out those little wrinkle areas, those little gray areas. So I think sometimes we want it all figured out—
Tyler: There's a collaboration that has to happen, too.
Eddie: —we want the gray areas, too. And it's okay. Every construction project has some gray in it. You know, that's why every architectural drawing I've ever met says “contractor coordinate.” That was a rip. Sorry. (laughter) No, it is. It is, because every— How could we, how could any architect designer cover every last thing?
Tyler: No, there's no way.
Eddie: There's no way. They're designing for intent. And so when we start designing in a way that allows for modular means of construction, then those modular means are going to take place. In the predominantly design-bid-build world that we live in that is being undertaken by non vertically integrated companies, companies that don't have any vertical integration or means internally of making a modular thing. They don't have a warehouse to go build a thing, you know, panelized walls in—
Tyler: And that's most companies out there.
Eddie: That’s most companies and most buildings. They need a resource, as do the designers, to find out, Hey, who does panelized wall systems and what do they look like? And what goes in them? Because if I got that, now, in the same way that that guy at the end of the table has a building that he's bringing in, I know what he's bringing in. And I can start planning for the gray areas a little bit. Those little wrinkles in between.
Tyler: You know, it was funny because after we were done talking to Pete, I actually talked to him about an idea I had for, you know, mass timber, like, homes. And so I was like, Man, where could I buy the material to do this? And you know, he pointed me at a place and I go on there and they said, we have, you know, CLT and these spans and they're four feet wide. And you know, they gave me all of the details and I was like, okay, so I've got my building blocks. I can then take that into a model. I could take it into SketchUp or something and start massing it together and kind of get a general feel for it. But I knew what I was going to buy from that person because they just put all that information on their website, all the specifications on their website.
Eddie: So there's a exposure of information that has to happen. And then you need companies that are actually producing this stuff. It needs to be readily available so that when you put it in there, you're not actually hitting the reverse button. You're not worse off than you would have been had you done it by, you know, quote unquote “conventional means.” But then you also, we have to create a market for these modular companies.
Tyler: There has to be a demand for it, right?
Eddie: And so it's the chicken or the egg, which is kind of what I was trying to create: Which comes first, the Lego bricks or the Lego master? I'm trying to create that kind of chicken or the egg thing, because I'm thinking through like when I've got the Magna-Tiles, I know my modules and I start a building, well, I get a whole wall out of that Magna-Tile. And I'm like, Oh cool. You know, I put that whole thing in, right. I've got a whole wall. I don't build the little like bits and pieces of that. I get the whole wall. And then I start building around that. That's my basic unit of building. And we use these basic units of building right now and they're more broken down. Since modular is a more assembled basis of design, we've got to have people out there that are actually putting their version of the more assembled design on the streets and making that not so custom and therefore more economical, so that we can use that as a basis of design. But on the other side, we also have to be able to fund them. Yeah, we've got to give them business. And so we as construction users have to find these companies and use them. Like, I'm sorry, but right now, this is a good idea and it's deserving of a little of the risk incurrence that you're going to take as a designer and owner or a GC to go out and figure it out. Exert some effort in your planning. You have to plan for it right now. It's not readily off the shelf. You can't just go pick it and stick it. It will come, there will be a day when we're going to know a little bit about how the bricks interlock. We're going to know a little bit about how to design that quick connect for the electrical and the plumbing so that they pop down and they snap in “like Lego,” like everybody likes to say, but we're not there yet. We won't get there, though, if everybody gets right up to the edge and shies away. We've got to push it over the edge. And so it really is like, there's kind of the seesaw we're sitting on of which is going to come first. Like being able to get the modular stuff or to be able to design it, to create the need for it. So that people will want to create it. And that, I think, is why right now the successful vertically integrated companies are the ones that are building by these means. So that was the thought process. That's kind of the fully-orbed Lego bricks, Lego master thing. We got Lego philosophical today.
Tyler: I love it. All right guys. Thanks for being here. We appreciate you guys. Have a great week.
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