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It's official: Meet the best Lego brickster around

WHAT DOES it take to win a full-time job as the officially designated Lego master model builder for Philadelphia - one of only nine people in the U.S. with the master model builder title?

WHAT DOES it take to win a full-time job as the officially designated Lego master model builder for Philadelphia - one of only nine people in the U.S. with the master model builder title?

A personal collection of approximately 20,000 to 30,000 plastic pieces? A previous job teaching kids how to turn bricks that click into robots? A degree in mechanical engineering? The occasional commission from Lego itself?

If you're Michael Nieves, 29, of Monmouth Junction, N.J., the answer to all of the above is yes, yes, yes, and yes.

Nieves beat out dozens of contestants for the master model builder job during a two-day showdown last weekend at the Plymouth Meeting Mall - future site of the region's Legoland Discovery Center and its 1.5-million-brick Philadelphia-theme Miniland.

The lifelong Lego builder most recently worked at Play-Well, "an afterschool program that teaches kids engineering through Lego," he said. His new gig will have him making the hour-long commute starting in January to perfect and maintain the Miniland, lead children's workshops, and serve as the spokesman and master model builder for the country's ninth Legoland.

Here, Nieves tells Lauren McCutcheon about his winning design-builds, the best way to play with the world's most popular toy - and what a Lego lover's to do during the wait for Philly's Legoland, due to open in the spring.

Q How long have you loved Legos?

I started building when I was two years old. In high school, I advanced my skills a bit. When I went to college [Rutgers], I couldn't do much - it was a blackout period.

After college I got into it: I started going online, going onto forums. I went to a bunch of conventions. A lot of my of my work is published in books now. In the last two years, I stepped away from that level of difficulty of building and went toward the easier stuff, the simpler stuff.

Q What was the competition like?

On the first day, I was nervous, as were many of the other builders. You don't know what to expect. It's very nerve-wracking. There was only a certain amount of pieces and a certain amount of time. We had to interact with the kids . It was intense.

Q What did you build for the contest?

The first theme was to build an animal. We had only half an hour to build one the first day. I built a fish - a fighting fish with a background of seaweed.

I have this flowing technique I like to use. Bricks are usually square, so the main thing is trying to make circles out of squares. I connect them in such a way so that they curve a lot, to give it sort of a natural feeling.

The second theme, later that day, was a fancy theme. I built a pixie on top of a mushroom. I used the trick again. By the end of the day, they narrowed it down to eight contestants.

Q And in the finals?

We found out after the second round what the next day's theme would be, so I had a day to plan. The theme was to represent yourself.

I started off with a face with glasses [because I have glasses], and an exploding mind behind it. And I made Dr. Seuss arms that were building the rest of my build: A pirate ship on wavy water, to represent pioneering a new wave of building, and a lighthouse to represent a focal point of where I long to go.

Q And this took you . . . ?

One hour. We had one hour.

Q So, when you have more time, what have you made?

One of my favorites was a tiger. At the time I made it, it was not like anything else ever made. It was incredible. I've made a horse model from Pokémon called Rapidash. It was the culmination of a lot of different techniques and learning that I put into one model.

Most of the things that I built are between six inches and a foot tall. I don't go much bigger than that.

For a good decent model, especially one I'm going to keep, it takes a full week, an 8-hour-a-day week. For the more complicated models that are way out there, it can take a month.

Q After all that time, you don't always keep your completed works? No Kragle for you?

I feel like the biggest mistake is to keep the project together after you build it through the instructions. Lego is not meant to be kept together. It's to make into something new.

When you keep the project together, you take it away from it. My advice is, whatever model you buy, keep it for a day, break it, and always challenge yourself to build something new.

Q Most important question: How's a Lego fan supposed to wait 'til Legoland opens?

Build whatever you can. Anything that you imagine, as long as you can get it out, that's the important part. And, vote on Facebook to have whatever landmark you want in the Philadelphia Miniland. Do that, so you can see it come up in the springtime.