Because of course you get far more with Architecture sets than parts; there's the wonderful packaging, presentation and booklet; all expensive things to produce which most sets do not receive (Master Builder Academy and some CUUSOO being two exclusions that spring to mind). But why else are they priced so high? Undoubtedly, their positioning as a premium luxury item affects the recommended retail price (RRP). The nature of the target market is also a factor: lovely rich adults. Adults that go travelling and have seen the buildings featured, so feel an emotional connection to them. Adults that buy the set from the actual building's gift shop, or other expensive tourist traps within the same city. Adults with no idea of the comparative cost to other sets. Adults with nostalgia for LEGO®, who see these cool little models of buildings in sleek black packaging and find that a more acceptable first-ever LEGO set purchase for themselves or other adults than say, the Friends Dolphin Cruiser. *shrugs*
I also wonder if the unusual history and setup of the Architecture range have an effect. The whole thing was the brainchild of architect/LEGO builder Adam Reed Tucker, who pitched it to TLG and worked in partnership with them to develop and market the sets. Adam, along with architects Michael Hepp and Rok Zgalin Kobe, design the sets which then pass to the experienced Designers at TLG to complete. That's about as much detail as I know of this partnership, so this is pure conjecture, but I wonder if the very nature of this line not falling under the same in-house procedure as other themes causes some slightly higher costs in production.
There might also be licensing fees involved for reproducing a famous building. Sounds weird given these are just approximate representations, but for example a few years back a major film company got into hot water when they didn't obtain a license for including a world-famous building in their animated film and its marketing. I have absolutely no idea whether TLG have had to agree any licensing fees for the Architecture range, but it's a possibility, and if so these costs would presumably be passed on to the consumer.
So there's no doubt these sets are more expensive, but I've always felt they get a worse rap from many AFOLs than deserved. Thing is, I've always clutched to the belief that a lot of this was just bad beginnings. In the first couple of years of Architecture, there were four sets released that were tiny yet expensive; 21000 Sears/Willis Tower (2008), 21001 John Hancock Center (2008), 21002 Empire State Building (2009) and 21003 Seattle Space Needle (2009). They all retail at US$19.99 and have piece counts averaging just 70 elements... I've received free polybags with more parts than that!
So I was interested to see how these four early egregiously expensive examples (or EEEEs for short!) compare to later sets and how the line generally compares to sets with similar piece counts and years of release. To locate suitable sets, Brickset's Advanced Query Builder was essential and my gratitude goes to Huw Millington for developing this tool. Be aware that the sets I chose aren't a cross-section of LEGO sets as a whole; just some that have similar piece counts to Architecture sets and released in similar years. I tried to avoid minifigs as much as possible in case they skewed results, but that's impossible with larger sets. 21021 Marina Bay Sands was excluded as the US price is not known (all prices in this post are in US dollars), plus it is very hard to obtain. But I left in 21050 Architecture Studio because, despite being US only (and now sold out), it's an interesting set.
Price per pieceDividing the RRP by the number of pieces is the commonest way to judge the value of a set, and Brickset actually list this amongst set information. However I've done my calculations based upon the BrickLink piece count, as it includes the spare parts which obviously also add a little value.
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A rule of thumb that many AFOLs seem to follow is that anything under 10c a part is good value, so let's focus on the Architecture sets that achieve that. 21018 United Nations Headquarters is a winner at 8.3c per piece, which is equal to Creator 5766 Log Cabin amongst others. Of all the sample sets I chose with a similar piece count, this set beat them all at price per piece. Close behind are 21013 Big Ben (8.6c) and 21010 Robie House (8.7c) but the latter is a large set, so you'd expect it to do well at price per piece. Compared to other large sets it didn't do well though, but isn't much higher than Star Wars 10225 R2-D2. 21006 The White House (8.8c) and 21011 Brandenburg Gate also do OK (9.2c).
But at the other end of the scale, seven of the eight worst prices per piece are Architecture sets. Unsurprisingly the top four are the EEEEs with prices per piece ranging from 25.6-31.2c! The only theme that often has a higher price per piece than this is DUPLO®.
But how useful a metric is price per piece? 4645 Harbour, a humble City set, rates poorly at 15.4c, but this is because it includes one of those horrid giant boat hull pieces (that really floats). The large amount of plastic required skews the overall average badly for this set. So would it be fairer to judge things by the weight of pieces?
Price per gramA year ago, Andrew Sielen wrote an interesting article examining the cost of LEGO over the decades. Definitely worth a read (after you finish here, naturally). He used price per gram as the basis for his primary arguments, so let's try that here by dividing the RRP by the weight. Andrew used the total weights from BrickLink which include the box and instructions; I'm only using the weight of parts (and sticker sheets... bother, forgot to exclude them), so be aware that Andrew's averages for price per gram differ from my figures. I calculated weights using BrickStore; a superb piece of software by Robert Greibl that sadly has been unsupported in recent years - even so, it's a must-have tool.
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The aforementioned 4645 Harbour now does very nicely at 7.4c per gram. Architecture sets now comprise the top ten worst value sets from my sample! Surprise surprise; the EEEEs are still top of the list. They're followed by 21008 Burj Khalifa which did much better in price per piece; so here price per gram has been a useful tool in exposing Burj Khalifa's use of 112 1X1 round bricks!
The two best Architecture performers here both come in at the not-great-but-fairly-average price of 11.1c per gram, which is the same value as City 60020 Cargo Truck. They are 21006 The White House and 21050 Architecture Studio, the latter of which is quite a different kettle of fish to the usual Architecture set. It didn't do great in price per piece but it's encouraging to see it's done OK in price per gram, especially given the amount of expense that must have gone into creating the lavish and huge accompanying booklet. Not far behind them are 21014 Villa Savoye, 21018 United Nations Headquarters and 21011 Brandenburg Gate. A couple of Star Wars and Atlantis sets hover around this same value, but it is interesting to note some other Star Wars sets are lower; as low as 9c per gram. Ninjago 2521 Lightning Dragon Battle is 2.2c per gram more expensive than 21014 Villa Savoye despite having an identical piece count - probably due to the complexity of moulding its many specialist parts.
Which leads me to another common complaint of Architecture sets; that there are too many 'boring' parts, which is an understandable perception given what the EEEEs offered. In reality it just depends on what parts you like to build with... but is there a way I can do some number-crunching around how desirable parts are to AFOLs? I can think of one useful resource for this; BrickLink's "6 month average" price guide. Every element's page on BrickLink includes a variety of costs, including an average cost of sales for that element over the last six months. As an indicator of value it's far from perfect for many reasons, but surely, at some level, this literally gives us the value that we place on parts? TLG have a value that they place on parts, which goes into calculating RRP. So what if we compare the BrickLink part-out value of each set to the RRP? One thing this value tells us is the profit a parts seller on BrickLink might hope to make! But I think it also tells us something about the value of those parts to builders; they are more expensive on BrickLink because they're desirable. (The wider question is perhaps for what reasons are they more desirable?) For want of a better name I'll call the BrickLink part-out value divided by RRP the Part-out Profit.
When I was at the height of my addiction to buying discounted LEGO sets, I did actually use Part-out Profit as part of my purchase considerations! Not that I intended to sell parts on BrickLink (nor have to date), but they were one factor that assisted me in purchasing at a time when I wanted to generally expand my parts collection. Or to put it another way, it was yet another excuse to buy sets :-/ It's OK folks, I stopped buying quite so nuttily. But mostly because my flat is too small.
Part-out ProfitAgain, BrickStore was used to calculate averagely what these sets would cost you if bought as individual parts on BrickLink. Sticker sheets were unfortunately included again, sorry, which skews things more this time because they can be valuable and Architecture sets don't have them. Anyway, we're just here for a bit of fun. So with this metric, which I've expressed as a percentage, let's interpret anything below 100% as meaning AFOLs don't (currently) value the set's parts as highly as TLG do (or did, when they released it). Above 100% is good to own; your set includes parts that if you bought recently on BrickLink would cost you more than they did in the original set at RRP.
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Well, guess which are worst value... it's our old friends, the EEEEs, and by a long shot too; a paltry 34-49% of the RRP. But wait... there's only three of them this time. In a shock departure, 21003 Seattle Space Needle breaks even at 102%, but let's not forget it was the worst offender both in price per part and price per gram.
Hooray, finally an Architecture comes out tops, at 303%! 21018 United Nations Headquarters is valuable because of its large volume of rare Trans-Light Blue plates of course. It's likely that with time these will become more common, so this set is topping the list partly because it's new. But if the elements remain rare, or simply never drop much in price on BrickLink (which is unlikely), this set will remain valuable because of the high volume of these elements.
The same is possibly true of the next two best performing Architecture set on this list. For 21017 Imperial Hotel, that's thanks to its rare Trans-Black [BL]/Tr.Brown [TLG] elements. It also has rare and unique Sand Green elements, but they don't come in massive volumes - in fact, the rare and useful Tan [BL]/Brick Yellow [TLG] modified plates account for much more of the current resale cost of this set than the Sand Green parts do. It scores 195%; equal to Chima 70010 The Lion CHI Temple. For 21015 The Leaning Tower of Pisa (159%) the volume of White 1X3 arches helps, but most precious are the White hinges.
Given the apparent effect that the recency of a set has on this metric, I think it's also worth noting the older sets that did OK; 21014 Villa Savoye (153%), 21011 Brandenburg Gate (150%) and 21006 The White House (137%). Once again 21014 Villa Savoye does a little better than Ninjago 2521 Lightning Dragon Battle, and 21011 Brandenburg Gate fares a little better than Creator 5766 Log Cabin.
ConclusionSo what does this all tell us? Absolutely nothing as far as I am concerned, because the greatest measure of value you can place on a set is how much you want it. But hey I went and crunched a bunch of numbers so let's look for patterns. We can see some consistent winners and losers within these various metrics. Obviously the EEEEs rely wholly on your desire to own sets of those buildings, because they're rubbish value whichever monetary way I've cut it. Maybe these do well when re-sold as complete sets, but I'm not touching on that area today.
Some sets do averagely well in all my metrics, which challenges the preconception that all Architecture sets are poor value. They're not amazing value, but they're OK. 21006 The White House and 21011 Brandenburg Gate offer value that's on par with many sets that don't suffer the same discrimination as Architecture (nor have the lovely box and booklet). 21014 Villa Savoye could perhaps join them too, and 21015 The Leaning Tower of Pisa did better than I personally expected!
It's worth reminding you at this point that I've worked with US prices; results would be quite different in other currencies. An analysis of US vs. Rest of World prices across different themes would be very interesting for a future post perhaps! For now I will suffice to point out that 21018 United Nations Headquarters has an RRP of US$49.99... and GB£49.99 :-/
So overall, yes it is true to say most Architecture sets don't offer the best value in terms of parts and I haven't much of a leg to stand on when they moan. But I'll state again how silly it is to attach parts values (like I just have, at great length) to sets as beautiful as the Architecture range. Ultimately I suppose it comes down to whether you personally find that the added value of the "building experience" is worth paying more for, so if you've never tried one, perhaps this exercise has helped identify candidates. If you missed my previous posts reviewing recent Architecture sets, they might inspire you based on the building techniques offered: 21019 The Eiffel Tower, 21018 United Nations Headquarters and the one I didn't include today because of its exclusivity, 21021 Marina Bay Sands.
A shout out to Aanchir for originally describing the pricing of the early small sets as "egregious", which I happily stole :oD
Thanks again to Brickset, BrickStore and of course the amazing BrickLink community for the data they've uploaded over the years.