Monday, March 10, 2008

Town planning and modular buildings

There's a neat (relatively) new fan magazine on the LEGO scene, called RailBricks. As with many fan magazines, output is irregular, with two issues so far. For some reason, the driving force behind it, Jeramy Spurgeon (that's not a typo) also a driving force of IndyLUG, has listed me as on the editorial board. Maybe because I bought him a beer once? Maybe because I DIDN'T buy him a beer one time and he's getting me back.

Anyway, the next issue has a theme, as did the last one. This one is "tips and tricks" and I've managed to let myself get roped into (possibly... see my post on procrastination!) writing an article for it, on town planning and modular buildings.

Being lazy, I thought maybe I'd rattle on about the topic here and see if I can later reuse some of what I say. Being a procrastinator, I'm writing this blog post now, instead of the real work I SHOULD be doing instead.... OK enough preface! :)

Frank Ellison, a very noted model railroader from its early days, said famously that a train layout is a stage and the trains are the actors. And you can see that's very true for most conventional model railroaders... when you see a layout, it's a series of scenes through which the trains run.

But I'm not sure that's as true for LEGO layouts. At least it seems to me that a certain number of clubs lately have had layouts where the buildings take center stage. I think you'd agree that a layout that features most of the major buildings of downtown Columbus, for example, or a layout with an 11 foot high building and several other very tall ones as well, is not a layout that's primarily about the trains.

Well that's OK, really, as long as you're having fun. But if you want the layout to be a crowd pleaser (and that's what generates repeat income for your club, the buzz a good layout generates with the show organizers, see my previous post on show mechanics) it helps to have some plan and to have your layout "hang together".

Layout planning is a very broad topic and I'm not going to go into it here except to note that it is helpful to have flexibility in your buildings. At MichLTC we find that each layout is different, Some are small, some medium sized, and some are large. We use a block based planning system in which the layout is divided into areas (usually blocks, for city areas) and each block assigned to a builder. (this works for us because the club owns enough road plates to pave all the streets on a typical layout... remember that "generating income bit"?)

Some builders enjoy building large set-piece blocks but I myself prefer to have a collection of buildings to draw from and to pick and choose which buildings I will use with which others.

I can do this because my buildings (and those of my building partner :) ) are modular, they all take up either a half or a full baseplate. Now, in real life, irregularly sized lots mean that real buildings tend to be irregular widths, but for the most part that hasn't been a major drawback for us, the use of full and half width buildings, mixed up, gives enough irregularity.

So I would advocate modularity to allow rearrangement.

But I'll go further. Height matters too. If you look at real city blocks there is a tendency for heights to be somewhat clustered... it is rare (but not unheard of, true) for a 1 story building to be in the same block as a 50 story building. This is a matter of economics, buildings go upwards when there is economic reason for them to do so (high land prices, desire to be near other workers/companies/services). So... if a block is in with other "tall blocks" it is helpful to have tall buildings. And if it's in with other "small blocks" it is helpful to have small buildings.

This argues for vertical modularity as well... the ability to add and remove stories is a useful attribute. it also means that a building can be "finished" and yet you still can add more to it.

So how do you achieve this? That's the subject for my next blog post on this topic area... Stay tuned.

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