From pillow forts to building blocks, children have always been drawn to construction. But most of the toys used for childhood construction play have little to do with the adult world of building and engineering. After all, although building a gigantic Lego model of Star Wars’ marquee spaceship, the Millennium Falcon, is certainly great fun, it doesn’t have much in common with pouring concrete on a construction jobsite.
Now, there’s a new building toy company that’s looking to change that dynamic. Built sat down with Mini Materials co-founder Erik Polumbo for a look behind the scenes at the world’s first accurate miniature building materials company and how Mini Materials is bringing excitement to the construction world.
Inspired by real materials
Polumbo and his business partner, Mat Hofma, were inspired to found Mini Materials through their shared childhood love for creating miniature structures. “We grew up playing with Lego blocks,” Polumbo said. “They are still fantastic, but they are plastic. We wanted to do something truer to concept but in the same arena, so we developed the realistic miniature building supply product line.”
Once they had the idea to create miniaturised realistic building sets, Polumbo and Hofma started from the ground up by getting a feel for the real versions of all the miniature materials they would go on to create. “Mini Materials was all created and inspired by walking the aisles of our local hardware stores and seeing what we could recreate in much smaller scales.”
The duo took a decidedly hands-on approach to materials development. “We taught ourselves how to produce what we’ve created and used various publications and tools from internet searches to home in on the best methods,” Polumbo said. “But since it was not something readily available, it took a ton of trial and error.”
Polumbo and Hofma had to experiment many times to create miniaturised versions of real materials that still behaved, and could be used, in the same way as their life-sized counterparts. But ultimately, Polumbo said that having the resources of real materials to draw on did help give them a clear pathway for the Mini Materials creation process. “The good news with these products is that they already exist, just in 1:1 scale,” Polumbo said. “So simply using maths to reduce them to whatever scale we are replicating them in allows them to be used no differently from their more-normal versions you see everywhere in construction.”
Once the two founders had nailed the miniaturisation process, the real fun could begin. Polumbo and Hofma began dreaming up Mini Materials’ first construction kits.
Honouring the source of their inspiration, one of the first kits Polumbo and Hofma put together was inspired by other childhood toys they had both loved. “Our first kit was a miniature cement fortress,” Polumbo said. “It was great for GI Joes or action figures.”
With one construction toy kit under their belt, the Mini Materials team was inspired to connect with other online makers. “We then made a Mini Pizza Oven out of our red bricks and cinder blocks,” said Polumbo, which they accessorised with a hyper-realistic miniature pizza. However, thanks to the functional nature of the building materials, the tiny oven could theoretically be used to make a real, edible pizza.
The oven kicked off a whole new round of experimenting with wooden Mini Materials. “From there, we started making some wooden furniture like a picnic table, a wooden bar and a barn door,” Polumbo said.
As Mini Materials grew, Polumbo and Hofma’s families all got in on the action. “Our pallet coasters and cinder blocks are used regularly during holiday times for either customised gifts or décor around the house,” Polumbo said. “We enjoy making handmade gifts using our products for various events.”
For both Polumbo and Hofma, connecting with their families through their love of construction has been a major aspect of their Mini Materials journey – a joy that inspires them to create 20 new Mini Materials building kits every year.
Not just for kids
One of Polumbo’s favourite things about creating Mini Materials is seeing the enthusiastic response the materials inspire from members of the construction industry. “We sell a ton of our products to the construction industry in general,” he said. “Whether it is our customers adding their logo to a block and handing them out like business cards, or folks that have recently retired and aren’t able to be out on an actual jobsite but still have the desire to keep their hands busy.”
Mini Materials construction toy kits have proved a surprising source of comfort and engagement for retired industry professionals who want to keep in touch with the materials that inspired them.
Polumbo said he’s constantly amazed by the creative uses Mini Materials building toy fans of all ages put his sets to. “The YouTube Channel DIYGarage built a miniature mansion using a lot of our products; it’s absolutely phenomenal,” he said, of the period-accurate 19th century manor house created by the popular DIY channel. There have also been some surprisingly high-stakes applications for Mini Materials. “The US Navy has purchased from us to build desktop military training resources,” Polumbo shared.
Polumbo said he loves how Mini Materials have become a way for professionals to share their love for real-world construction with younger generations. “Our product line is great for those hobbyists that love to experience and actually feel realism; but passing that down to future generations is becoming more difficult in a very virtual world,” Polumbo said. “We hope we can continue to be a guiding force to help kids design, create and embrace realistic building.”
Polumbo hopes that the Mini Materials kits offer children a way to access an age-appropriate version of the real-life challenges of a construction site. “This is as real as it can get without needing a ton of land or space to build,” he said. “The education ability for what we offer is perfect for learning within the construction trade. It doesn’t require the space or costs like a true building site to train with requires. Additionally, using scale, these products are great for fun maths projects and architectural learning.”
Ultimately, Polumbo believes that Mini Materials will offer young creators a way to access their imaginations in a way he hopes will inspire them to continue exploring the professional fulfilment the construction industry has to offer. “I think the world is always innovating; we are no different,” Polumbo said. “Being creative in whatever industry you end up in won’t change. As the construction methods continue to adapt, using miniature versions to inspire that creativity and educate the young folks’ minds should help to keep them engaged in the industry.”