When Adam Mael was a child, he loved building things.
Give him an Erector set, K’NEX pieces or LEGO, and he was content.
That still rings true today, especially when it comes to LEGO. He has a vast collection of between 175,000 and 200,000 pieces, sorted and organized by piece type and color, and occasionally dumps some out to see what he can build.
Mael has built many things, perhaps none more daunting, involved and impressive than the scale replica of the Diag and surrounding buildings on Central Campus he recently completed after three years.
“When I was little I wouldn’t have dreamt of doing something like this with it,” said Mael, graduate coordinator for the Department of Mechanical Engineering in the College of Engineering and an LSA graduate. “I’ve just always sort of liked to tinker around with things and build stuff.
“I have told a lot of people the 8-year-old version of me would be very proud of this.”
The model, which measures about 3½ feet square, features the core of Central Campus bounded by State Street and South and North University avenues. The Diag, the criss-crossing sidewalk, the undergraduate and graduate libraries, the Angell/Mason/Haven/Tisch complex, the new School of Kinesiology Building — all meticulously accurate and made entirely of LEGO, with the exception of a few stickers.
After placing the final pieces — the concrete caps to the steam tunnels — he took and shared on social media some photos of the finished product with little expectations in November. The Alumni Association spotted them and asked to share them on their accounts. That Facebook post was liked thousands of times and shared by hundreds of users becoming the association’s most popular in terms of reach and engagements this fiscal year.
“I thought people who were super into LEGO might find it cool, but I was not expecting the response this got,” Mael said.
Mael, who grew up in Maryland, came to U-M in 2007 and graduated with a degree in history and biology four years later, spending several years as a campus tour guide. He has worked at U-M ever since, the last three years in his current position.
He met his wife, Amanda, while a freshman at U-M, and the two shared a “pretty small” two-bedroom apartment for a time before moving into a house in Brighton in 2018. While in the apartment in 2015, Mael got an itch to create something out of LEGO. He picked the Burton Memorial Tower.
“I didn’t have a lot of space, so I was looking for something with a small footprint,” he said. “I designed it digitally and I’m pretty proud of it. So I built this, it sat gathering dust on my desk for another year or two. Then in 2017, I started to think, ‘Maybe I’ll try building another one. What’s a cool building I could make?’”
He picked the Angell/Mason/Haven/Tisch complex.
“It’s four buildings in one,” he said. “It’s all sorts of different architectural styles and designs and so I thought that would be a neat challenge, and it definitely proved to be.”
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As he did with the Burton Tower, he created a digital model using as reference photos he took, Google Earth and SketchUp, an accessible computer-aided-design program that includes a measuring stick to inform how tall or long buildings are. That allowed Mael to set a scale for the project where each LEGO brick represented a 12-foot tall and 10-foot wide area.
He also utilized software that serves as a sort of LEGO sandbox where he could digitally place bricks instead of building from scratch. When he built the structure, he ended up with one solid “chunk of LEGO,” which broke when he and his wife moved out of the apartment.
“It was a giant mess,” he said of the original complex model. “I thought, ‘Well, this is an opportunity to re-do how this is made.’ So now, that building alone is 13 different sections that I drop in. It was a blessing in disguise (that it broke).”
After he rebuilt the Angell Hall complex — and accounted for every window in his model — and had room in the new house to spare, he decided to turn the digital designs of the remaining buildings into a LEGO campus.
The buildings sit on 16 green baseplates that are 10-by-10 inches. The grass, sidewalks, trees and roads are all connected to the baseplates — “They’re not moving.” — and the buildings rest on top of mostly flat pieces with only a couple of studs so they can be removed to ease transport of the entire model.
Mael next undertook building the Harlan Hatcher Graduate Library and the Shapiro Undergraduate Library, which, like the Angell Hall complex, featured straight edges. Mael ran into more complex challenges when tackling Randall Lab, the Chemistry Dow Lab and the School of Kinesiology. The latter recently underwent a renovation that included filling in the courtyard, which Mael said would have been extremely complicated to replicate.
He said the most complex building was the U-M Museum of Art and the textures on its exterior. Mael intends to add a LEGO likeness of the recently installed Jaume Plensa sculpture, Behind the Walls, outside the museum.
In all, he estimates he used 22,000 pieces of LEGO for the buildings and between 8,000 and 10,000 for the landscape. Each of the more than 100 trees is about 50 pieces of LEGO.
In addition to the campus model, he has built a U-M football helmet and a mosaic of Heisman Trophy winner Desmond Howard, striking his famous Heisman pose, out of LEGO. The Howard mosaic, which he made in 2017, is 4,300 tiny pieces of LEGO. He undertook that after creating a smaller mosaic from a photo of his sister and her husband for their wedding.
The Central Campus model currently rests in his basement, but Mael said he’d love to display it — perhaps at the Ann Arbor District Library — when it becomes safe to do so. In the meantime, he’s already deep into his next project — a LEGO replica of their Brighton home.
For now, he has no plans to expand the Central Campus model beyond its current state, but he’s still floored by the response it has received.
“When I look at the undergrad library, I think about how many Saturday mornings did I spend studying for chemistry exams with my now wife sitting in that little nook there, or afternoons in Angell Hall reading something, taking people on tours and walking past the President’s House,” he said. “I’m very proud of the actual building of it.
“(The response) was incredibly flattering and really exciting, just like a much-needed bit of good news, when this sort of took off like it did. I was happy to bring a little bit of joy and spark some of those happy memories everybody else has about campus.”