The Buckminster Fuller Challenge, a new annual design competition created to honor the late architect-inventor-ecologist who would have celebrated his 113th birthday this Saturday, has a winner.

John Todd, a Cape Cod-based scientist and environmental planner who met Bucky nearly 30 years ago, has taken home the blue ribbon for his “Comprehensive Design for a Carbon Neutral World: The Challenge of Appalachia,” an economic plan that calls for cleaning up and replanting 1.5 million acres of land from Ohio to Alabama that coal producers have strip-mined. The Buckminster Fuller Institute, a Brooklyn-based research group, sponsored the contest and announced the winner on May 1.

John Todd
Photo ' Martin Seck
John Todd, a Cape Cod-based scientist and environmental planner, won a new design competition created to honor Buckminster Fuller, who died in 1983.

Todd, a University of Vermont professor, has studied Appalachia for years. His winning proposal focuses on rivers choked with “slurry,” the crushed-up remains of mountain peaks, which were sheared off to provide access to coal. To insure jobs won’t be lost as mines close, Todd details how to transition the region’s fossil-fuel-based economy to one that relies on the sale of wind power and wood. He also explains how not-for-profits could tap federal mine-remediation funds to buy land from private companies. “I’m very pleased that someone my age, in his late 60s, can come up with new and innovative ideas,” Todd says. “That’s terribly exciting.” He plans to spend part of the $100,000 prize on a sailboat.

The aim of the competition, which drew 272 entries, was to encourage unique ecological-focused solutions to intractable global problems. This was Fuller’s lifelong mission, embodied in his many inventions, from flying cars to geodesic domes. “Doing more with less was his big motto, which is sort of nice counterpoint to Mies van der Rohe’s ‘less is more,’” says architect Jonathan Marvel, Bucky’s grand-nephew and director of the Buckminster Fuller Institute.

Though geodesic domes never caught on in the grand way Bucky imagined—he thought two could sheath Midtown Manhattan, for example, to reduce energy consumption—they did capture Todd’s imagination. In 1980, the biologist built a 30-foot-wide version on the Cape, meant to serve as a greenhouse of sorts. Todd sought out Bucky’s advice on the project, and Bucky later visited the site. The interior contained flower and vegetable plants and a large fig tree, along with water tanks filled with aquatic flora and fauna. The dome yielded such heavy amounts of condensation that it could produce small rainstorms if its panels were drummed just right. “It was the combination of architecture and ecology that Bucky just loved,” Todd says.

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