Why not a ‘genius’ award just for construction? The John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation’s Fellows Program, sometimes called the ‘genius’ award, annually gives 20 to 30 extraordinarily talented individuals an unrestricted $500,000 stipend, payable over five years. This year, the foundation for the first time has included a bridge engineer among its recipients—Theodore Zoli, from HNTB Corp.

The Whole Industry Can Learn From The ‘Genius’ Awards

The 24 recipients come from all professions, ranging from photojournalist and painter to molecular biologist and applied mathematician. All are selected by a panel of secret nominators chosen by the foundation from a broad range of fields. This should be a model for the $4-trillion-plus-a-year global construction industry.

Not many people are as wealthy as John D. MacArthur was when he died in 1978, ranked at the time as one of the three wealthiest people in America. He made his fortune in insurance and land development, at one time owning 100,000 acres in Florida in the Palm Beach and Sarasota areas. In 2008, alone, his foundation paid out $252.3 million in grants and program-related investments.

Many in construction have earned great fortunes, and there should be a concerted push to establish construction-oriented foundations that reward great work and creativity like the MacArthur Foundation does. Such self-perpetuating foundations could be global in nature or national, perhaps linked as a federation. Areas of focus could be as broad as the industry, ranging from design and sustainability to materials, methods and academia.

Once established, either by families, associations, institutions or companies, the foundations could fund construction research and programs to further the industry, just as the MacArthur Foundation funds independent documentary films and video for public television, public-policy research and research on the role of place—home, community, city, region and state—in people’s lives.

The MacArthur Foundation believes a foundation is a private trust operated for the public good, and should be transparent and readily share the information obtained from its activities. This is a noble endeavor and may signal a new opportunity for the many associations in the construction industry. Some individuals in the past have had difficulties in setting up their own foundation because of the paperwork, administrative costs and cost effectiveness relative to the funds available. Associations could establish trusts with buckets tailored to various interests that those with deep pockets could fund, such as workforce, education, research or even genius awards to very talented industry people. This could be an easy way for people to share their good fortune and help the industry.