NORFOLK, Va. — Chris Adams was building ships long before the 26-year-old naval architect came to the Portsmouth Naval Shipyard.
Except instead of working with molded steel, Adams was making ships out of interlocking plastic bricks.
"I was always a nerd about ships, and LEGOs were a way I was able to express that nerdiness," said Adams, who will be competing in the second annual LEGO shipbuilding event and contest at the Hampton Roads Naval Museum Saturday.
The event offers a chance for kids and adults to use LEGOs accumulated by the museum to build replica ships, as well as a contest for LEGO enthusiasts who can bring in their own creations.
Adams attended last year's event but didn't have his own LEGOs, so like many people who came he used the museum's bricks to make something on the spot.
This year will be different.
After a trip home to Okemos, Mich., a Lansing suburb, for the holidays he came back with three big bins containing his childhood supplies.
And then he went to work, designing a red-hulled, perfectly symmetrical, floating war ship.
"It took eight or nine hours to build," he said, noting most of that time was devoted to finding appropriate pieces.
The actual construction took no more than 90 minutes, he said, and it was all done "on a gloomier day in January."
"Pretty much the whole living room turned into a giant LEGO bin," he said, during a Tuesday interview at his Virginia Beach home.
The event is a combination contest (for four separate age groups) and a chance to recreate ships of varying degrees of complexity using instructions painstakingly created by museum staffers.
It is the brainchild of Matt Eng and Laura Orr, two of the younger staffers at the Navy museum on Waterside Drive in Norfolk.
"We wanted to step outside the box of a traditional museum – with a lot of artifacts but not much for kids," Orr said.
To get the event on its feet, Orr and Eng, and three museum interns, had to assemble a LEGO collection large enough that hundreds of people could show up and have pieces to use to build.
In the first year, with the help of a grant and donations, they gathered 18,000 multi-colored pieces.
"And then we said let's build some ships, so we could get some designs," said Eng.
With blueprints for a range of ships and a trove of pieces the event organizers said the 800 attendees last year had plenty to do.
This year they have close to 40,000 LEGO bricks, and designs that match actual ships, and they're expecting a bigger crowd, too.
"This year we really changed it up so you can make the USS Ranger," Eng said, offering as an example the decommissioned supercarrier that was built at Newport News Shipbuilding in the 1950s.
Eng said there's an emphasis that the LEGO ships – toy or not – are built "using shipbuilding principles."
There's also contests for shipbuilders in four categories: 4 to 7; 8 to 12; 13-16; and 17 and older.
There's a certain amount of cachet associated with the adult category, because it showcases some of the more ambitious ship designs like Adams'.
But the naval architect is hardly a shoe-in for the top prize in the category.
Competition will be fierce and will include a five-foot long replica of a Fletcher-class guided missile destroyer, built of mostly small, gray Lego pieces.
"I just have to put a flag on it," said Dave Colamaria, a Northern Virginia historian who works by day at the Naval Historical Foundation in Washington, D.C.
But for two months he devoted time after work and on the weekends to the LEGO destroyer, which he describes as "as to scale as LEGO will let me be at that size."
The project required advanced planning, allowing Colamaria to tap into his professional expertise.
"I had to review old drawings, plans, cutaways – things like that – of Fletcher-class ships. And there's one in Buffalo – the USS The Sullivans – that I visited and had photos I was able to look at."
Colamaria, 41, said this year's contest rekindled a love of LEGOs.
"I loved them when I was a kid, but when I got to be a teenager I gave them away to a cousin and I sort of rued that day," he said.
Inspired to make "something substantial" for the event, Colamaria said he had to build up a collection of pieces, "stealing" some from a younger brother and buying by his estimation about $1,000-worth of bricks.
And while he brings a professional relationship with ships to the event, he sees it as "a great way to reach kids" who might already be engineering-minded and spark an interest in naval architecture.
Whether attendees come out to get educated, have fun or to show off a home-built ship, Eng said that just by coming out they could be contributing a historical designation of a sort.
He said he's expecting to see more than the 74 ships built as part of last year's event and contest: "It'll be the largest collection of LEGO ships anywhere probably."