When Ian Tinkler, vice president of brewer engineering at Keurig Green Mountain Inc., was trying to figure out how to design a new brewing machine, he turned to an unlikely household source: his children’s Lego collection.

Tinkler needed to create a mechanism that could brew both single-serve pods and a whole pot of coffee. So he challenged his kids to help him work it out using Lego bricks.

His son said, “‘Dad, you need a slider,’” Tinkler recalled. “And we sat down together and built the mockup we used at the program kickoff meeting.” The dual-functioning machine, Keurig 2.0, debuted in August.

“As a kid I loved Legos, and am now able to re-live the fun with my boys,” he added.

Tinkler is not the only grownup reveling in the colorful plastic bricks these days. A growing number of adults are embracing them in a variety of ways, from attending adult-only nights at Lego-themed indoor play centers to using them as a means of coping with post-traumatic stress disorder.

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Robin Krauth turned to Lego building to help cope with symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder.

At BrickCon, a four-day annual gathering held at Seattle’s Convention Center, adult Lego hobbyists exhibit complex creations they have been working on all year and lecture on advanced Lego building. The event drew an estimated 12,000 earlier this month and has grown steadily since its launch in 2001. Attendance has nearly doubled in the last five years, estimates Roger Hill, a member of Seattle’s Lego user group (SeaLUG) who helps run the show.

Hill attributes the growth in part to the Internet and a wider awareness by hobbyists that they are not alone in their enjoyment of a toy universally associated with children.

“More and more people realize that there are many others out there that share their same interest,” he said. “People see all the great models that are being built and want to participate too.”

Others adults are using Legos for therapeutic reasons. Robin Krauth, a former Army medic who served in Iraq, turned to the bricks after being diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder.

“My husband bought me the Harry Potter [Hogwarts] castle set. I sat there building it and realized that my concentration level was up and my anxiety level was down,” said Krauth, known as Michelle in the Lego hobbyist community. “So the next appointment I had with my therapist, I brought up how much building with Lego helped my symptoms. She encouraged it and turned it into a therapeutic means of helping deal with the PTSD.”

Now Krauth builds complex mosaics depicting TV and movie characters such as Princess Leia of Star Wars, and displays them at conventions like BrickCon.
"When we have a convention or display, we all love to see the kids faces light up when they see what can be made with Lego," she said.

Some Lego fans, like Mariann Asanuma, are able to turn a childhood obsession into a full-time job. Asanuma, 37, worked as Master Lego Builder at Legoland California for four years, tackling complex projects like a six-foot high ladybug and a replica of the classic "Welcome to Fabulous Las Vegas" sign for Miniland. About eight years ago, she launched her own freelance business building custom models, personal portraits, company logos and historic edifices out of the bricks.

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Legoland Discovery Center in California.

Fostering Creativity

Unlike most amusement parks, Legoland-affiliated parks don't allow adults to enter without a child. So when Legoland Discovery Centers, a network of Lego-themed indoor playgrounds, started opening in the U.S. and abroad, officials decided to provide an opportunity for adult Lego fans to check it out, says Monique Perretti, marketing manager at Legoland Discovery Center in Westchester, N.Y.

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During a Legoland Discovery Center Halloween-themed adult night, participants hold mummy races in the play area.

Once a month, many of the centers hold Adult Nights that include access to all the rides, movies and Miniland displays to which kids have access during the day, plus extras like building competitions and pizza-eating contests that might also appeal to the 18-and-over set. The audience in New York ranges from groups out for a fun evening and couples on date night to individuals driven by nostalgia for a beloved childhood toy, Perretti said.

Whatever the age of a Lego fan, Seattle's Roger Hill says he thinks the toy's main appeal lies in its ability to foster creativity.

"It is actually an artistic medium like painting or sculpture," he said. "It allows a builder to create anything that they can imagine. Some sculptors work in clay, some in marble. We work in colored ABS plastic."