M-H Tower

photo D.Birkhead

photo M.Sailors

Kurt's crown, nearly finished

photo D.Birkhead

photo M.Sailors

Memorial Hermann Tower
a 1:130 "LEGO-fied" scale model

This is a 1:130 (approximate) scale model of the Memorial Hermann Tower in Houston, Texas. It is a 33-story building with a "crown" feature on the top. The model's proportions are close to true scale, but the floor and window design are "LEGO-fied", and are close to minifig scale.

Memorial Hermann contacted TexLUG in August 2008 about the possibility of constructing a LEGO model of their new building. I took the lead in organizing and planning the project. The model was due to appear at the grand opening of the real tower.

The design and construction of this model were a collaboration. I designed the basic building structure and Kurt Baty helped with the design of the curved front window. Kurt also designed and built the crown structure on top. Several TexLUG members and myself built the basic building.

Kurt's webpage on the model can be found HERE.

Model Specs and Facts:
used nearly 16,000 pieces
approx. 54 pounds in weight (not including plywood base)
4 feet (1.22 m) tall
sits on a 30" x 40" plywood base
made of LEGO pieces 100%; no glue was used
contains 904 window panels total (84 are in the crown)
windows are backed with blue bricks; interior of model is mostly hollow

I will not go into the financial details of this model because it's nobody's business but our own :-) Basically, Memorial Hermann paid for all materials and TexLUG donated the time and effort to design and build the model.

The finished model was displayed at a public event in Houston, TX on November 14, 2009. Unfortunately, I was not able to attend the event. My mother-in-law took photos as well as my LEGO-buddy and fellow TexLUG member, Matt Sailors. A few of these photos appear to the left.

the real tower

back of building

front of building
The Real Building

The real building exists near Gessner and I10 in Houston. This is a few miles east of the intersection of I10 and Beltway 8 west.

It has 33 floors total (27 in the "basic" section and an additional 6 in the "crown" section). It is 527 feet from ground level to the top fins of the crown.

planning - trans windows

sketch of 1:130 scale

planning - solid windows

partial floor in LDD

Planning the Model

I started planning the model by constructing small sections to develop the window design and color scheme. I developed two options: a design using transparent light blue 1x4x3 window panels (each window backed with blue bricks), and a second design using solid blue bricks as the windows. I originally designed the front, curved window of the building as a straight-stepped feature, but this changed later.

The advantage to using solid color windows is the model will require less parts therefore reducing cost. The disadvantage, of course, is that it will look less realistic.

M-H decided that the trans window panels looked best. To keep cost down, we decided to back the windows with blue bricks and leave the interior of the model vacant with the exception of a few columns and lateral bracing to support the walls.

I used LDD (LEGO Digital Designer) to construct a partial floor section and then uploaded it to LEGO Factory to get a cost. Based on the partial floor section, I scaled up the cost to get a final estimate of the total model. I initially planned to price two different scales (1:130 - approx. 4-foot tall, and also a 1:88 scale model - approx. 6-foot tall). But I developed the cost estimate for the 1:130 scale first and M-H decided to just go with that. I'm not sure what the 1:88 scale would have cost, but I'm sure it would have been beyond their budget.

Using LDD had its advantages and disadvantages. Initially, LDD was a one-stop, easy source of parts. I could design it, price it, order it, and be done. I also determined that due to the large amount of tan bricks required, LDD (LEGO Factory) was the only feasible source. I searched Bricklink for parts, but never found enough tan bricks or window panels to fulfill the model requirements. I'll get to the downfalls of LDD in the next section.

The exterior proportions of the model closely match the real building but in 1:130 scale. The proportions and scale of the windows and apparent floors of the building closely match the LEGO minifig (roughly 1:40 scale). This was an acceptable compromise as the M-H folks wanted a "LEGO-fied" model and not necessarily an accurate scale model.

Final Model in LDD

Kurt's crown in LDRAW

Final Model in LDD
Getting Help, Revising Plans, Ordering Parts

The next step was to fully design the model in LDD and generate an accurate cost estimate. I focused on the basic building first (i.e. everything but the "crown") and produced a design. Just as I finished, Kurt Baty, stepped in to help me with the crown. He basically took ownership of it and was a great help. He also suggested a re-design of my front, "bay" window to actually make it curved. I modified the model and incorporated his suggestions, and we were most satisfied with the appearance.

Unfortunately, right about the time we were finishing the estimate and finalizing plans to procure the parts, LEGO decided to revise their parts offerings. As we rolled past April 1, 2009, some of the parts I'd used in the model design were taken off LEGO's online selection. This included the critical trans-lt.-blue window panel element. Also, LEGO's pricing increased nearly three times due to an apparent mistake or bad judgement. This nearly killed the project.

About a week after April 1, I redesigned the model (to account for the pieces no longer available through LEGO), sourced some of the parts from Bricklink, and made a special order for the window panels through LEGO (many, MANY thanks to Steve Witt, LEGO Community Relations Coordinator, for making that happen!). M-H decided to go ahead with the project, despite the price increase (fortunately, LEGO had backed off a little on their April 1 increase).

If you're wondering why I'm describing the design and procurement phase of the project in so much detail, it's because I spent so much time with it. It turned out to be an amazing amount of work, far more than I had anticipated. Responding to these changes, as the project moved forward, added so much more work on my part.

Sub Module 1

Sub Module 3

Sub Module 5

Module A

Module C

Sub Module 2

Sub Module 4

Sub Module 6

Module B

Module D

The Final Virtual Model

The Design
The design of the model in LDD was modular and broken down into 6 separate designs:

Sub Module 1: Top floor section with roof (same as Sub Module 2 but with plates and reinforcements for the roof)
Sub Module 2: Top floor section
Sub Module 3: Middle floor section with roof (same as Sub Module 4 but with plates and reinforcements for the roof)
Sub Module 4: Middle floor section
Sub Module 5: Bottom floor section with roof
Sub Module 6: Bottom floor

The Order
I tried to simplify the ordering process from LEGO factory by combining all the modules, but I hit the limit of allowable parts. LEGO claims that it's 5000 pieces, but I found that I could only get a LDD model with less than 2000 pieces to successfully upload into their system.

I combined some of the sub modules to create four major modules for ordering. Each of these major modules had just less than 2000 pieces.

Module A: Top floors with roof (Sub Mod. 1 and Sub Mod. 2 combined)
Module B: Top floors (three Sub Mod. 2's)
Module C: Middle floors (Sub Mod. 3 and two Sub Mod. 4's)
Module D: Bottom floors (Sub Mod. 5 and 5 plus some "extras": plants, minifigs, etc.)

The design of the model is symmetric, so only half of the building was included in the design. Two of each main module was required to make a complete building model.

Parts Received!

A few modules

build party

base building unfinished


unfinished model

All Sorted

top floor module

build party

base building unfinished

inserting the windows

unfinished model

Building the Model

The fun just didn't stop with this project (sarcasm alert). LEGO shipped the order in two big packages but indicated to me that only one package was coming. The first package arrived a day ahead of the second, but I didn't know a second one existed and neither did LEGO (well, at least not the folks on their help-line). The first packaged contained only about 1/3 of the parts.

So, after freaking out for about 24 hours, I received a second package that concluded the whole order. I was relieved but dismayed at the same time. The second package was a mess. The parts were sorted per module, but only half of the bags were labeled. I didn't know which bag belonged to what module for half of the order, therefore I couldn't quickly assess if the order was correct or not. (note- there were no LEGO Factory "set" boxes (the gray ones with a clear plastic lid) included in this second package)

I gave up and decided to sort all the parts based on part type and color. I bought about two dozen 7-quart plastic bins and spent a day sorting the whole mess. Although this added extra, unexpected work for me, it probably worked out best in the end and quite possibly saved a bit of time because it made the construction of the model faster.

The next problem I faced was building it. I knew LDD had a feature that would automatically generate instructions, but I had not tested it. I just assumed that it would work when I needed it too. Well, it didn't.

LDD generated graphics (in the instruction set that's intended for printing) so small that they couldn't be read. I gave up on having printed instructions and just set up a laptop on my building desk with LDD running. I used the "live" instruction feature in LDD while I built the model. This was also a real pain because the instructions kept jumping around (this is a large model) and I kept having to pan, rotate, and zoom around to keep up with the steps. The graphics in LDD really suck because they do not generate lines between parts of like color. I.e. if you have a line of 1x blue bricks of different sizes, you cannot make out individual pieces (e.g. 1x6, 1x4, 1x3, etc.).

After building 3 sub modules, I gave up on LDD and spent the time to make home-made instructions. Again, this was another problem that I didn't anticipate and one that cost me more time.

I invited several friends and members of TexLUG to come over and help build. In one day, we knocked out most of the model. My home-made instructions were a little difficult to follow at times, but were much easier than using LDD on a laptop.

To be fair to LEGO and their LDD software (and LEGO Factory), it's well suited for small, simple models. I imagine that the bulk of their orders come from kids and their kid-level creations. However, LDD and LEGO Factory are NOT well suited for large, complicated models. It can be done, as I've proved, but it's a difficult process.

Thomas J. Avery 2009