John Ochsendorf is on a roll. In 2007, the associate professor of building technology at MIT's School of Architecture won a coveted Rome Prize fellowship. And last month, he learned he was the recipient of a 2008 "genius grant" from the MacArthur Foundation Fellows Program. The award, $100,000 a year for five years, with no strings attached, has been given annually since 1981 to U.S. citizens who show "exceptional merit and promise for continued and enhanced creative work." Previous winners from the world of architecture are critic Ada Louise Huxtable in 1981, designers Elizabeth Diller and Ricardo Scofidio in 1999, and educator Samuel Mockbee in 2000.

Unlike the Rome Prize, however, for which Ochsendorf applied, the MacArthur grant was a surprise: Winners do not even know that they've been nominated. "My first thought was, it's not possible," said Ochsendorf?a structural engineer and architectural historian whose pursuits include preserving structures and interpreting ancient technologies for contemporary use?on Sept. 23, the day the grants were announced. "Interdisciplinary work like mine doesn't often get a lot of attention. This is a tremendous vote of confidence. It says, 'Hey, what you're doing is pretty interesting.' "