Like any other child, Ian Coffey remembers playing with Legos when he was young, but around ninth grade, building with the miniature, plastic bricks became more of a serious hobby.
“One day it just hit me, and I started,” said the 26-year-old Slingerlands resident. “My friends would come over, and we would build Legos and listen to music.”
Over time, his collection of projects grew. At first he had just one ping-pong table down in his basement covered with things he’d built himself. Soon, large party tables were added to include scenes like New York City or Lego kits he’d purchased. He now has nine large party tables covered with Lego scenes, along with the ping-pong table.
Coffey isn’t sure why he kept building over the years other than the fact he finds it fun and calming. It’s also similar to his summer hobby of entering sandcastle-building competitions in Maine.
He never thought of working with Legos as a career choice until a friend who lives in Boston sent him a clipping from the newspaper about an upcoming competition at the Boston Public Library.
The competition, which was held in January, took place over two days and the winner would be hired as the master model builder for the Legoland Discovery Center Boston opening in May.
“My friends and everyone thought I would win,” said Coffey, who works as a desk clerk in the New York State Senate. “I didn’t think I had a shot.”
Coffey was going to ignore the competition, but a friend decided to enter the two-day competition for him. Coffey agreed to drive to Boston to see how far he would get. He brought his skis along with him, figuring that when he was finally eliminated, the trip wouldn’t be a total waste.
David Gilmore, general manager for Legoland Discovery Center Boston, said the competition is held once for every new attraction that is opened. The event is meant to drum up press for the opening of new discovery centers and is a unique way to hold a job interview that “puts applicant’s skills to the test.”
The first day of the competition was on Saturday, Jan. 25, with nearly 100 people entered for the first round of the competition.
Coffey said the time leading up to the competition was nerve-wracking. No instructions were given about what the contestants would be asked to build, and he also didn’t know what type of bricks would be available, how many or in what colors.
“It was very hot in the room, and as they were counting down to begin, my hands started shaking,” said Coffey. “ I had no support. It was just me. My parents weren’t there and my friend who signed me up was in the hospital. But it was also calming because then your friends and family aren’t there staring at you.”
In the first round, contestants were given 30 minutes to build something from their favorite book. Coffey said the first thing he thought of was a book he liked as a kid based on Pixar’s film “Toy Story.” He decided to try to build the characters Woody and Buzz Lightyear.
“I really had no idea what I was doing. I’d never built them before,” said Coffey.
He made it through to the next round, which dropped the number of contestants down to 40. They were then given another 30 minutes to build something from a favorite vacation spot. Coffey opted to build the ski jumps and luge slide from Lake Placid.
Coffey said the second round was much more comfortable. He knew the bricks and he knew how much time he would have, which kept him more focused on his project.
“I never thought I would make it to the next day,” he said. “I didn’t get to ski, but I’m fine with that now.”
The third day of the competition was a little different. In the morning, each of the 10 contestants remaining went through a formal interview process before going on to the final stage. Coffey brought with him a portfolio that included pictures of all of the projects he had set up in his basement.
“That was one of the things that set him apart,” said Gilmore. “It’s absolutely amazing the capabilities he has.”
For the final stage of the competition, contestants were given 45 minutes to build something that best described them. Coffey decided to build a framed picture of him and his dog out of Legos. Gilmore said throughout that time, Coffey was interacting with the large audience around him and asking the children which colors would work best in his project.
“He just seemed very comfortable, and we liked that,” said Gilmore.
At the end of the competition, Coffey was named the winner.
“I got in my element like when I do with the sand castles. I just talked to the kids like I was their older brother,” said Coffey, who also used to be a children’s ski instructor.
He is now the face of Legoland Discovery Center Boston. He will build all of the attractions in the center that are made out of Lego bricks, host workshops for visitors and go out into the community to work with local school districts.
“The best I can describe it is, it’s like going from a hand-me down car out of college to buying a Mercedes,” said Coffey. “I just got my dream job.”
The one downside is the timing. Coffey was given just two weeks to quit his job, find an apartment in Boston and move. He’ll then be flown out to California to visit Legoland and some of the builders there, and he will spend time at another Legoland Discovery Center to speak with his counterpart about future projects. He will then need to start building attractions for the opening of the Boston location.
Coffey will have his own workshop where visitors will be able to watch him build. He will also get his own assistant.
“I had no idea I would win, and I’m really glad my friends pushed me to go,” said Coffey. “It really meant a lot.”
Legoland Discovery Center is scheduled for a May 2014 opening. The 44,000 square foot attraction is geared toward families with children between the ages of 3 and 10 years of age.