Building a Better World

Architect Charles Cunniffe applies principles of holistic sustainability to Aspen’s homes and public spaces.
Front entry of a CCA-designed home, constructed with minimal environmental impact. Photography by Mark Boisclair

by Jim Servin

“What we start with, on any project, is finding the magic in the dialogue between the house and the site,” says architect Charles Cunniffe, who through his much-lauded firm CCA (Charles Cunniffe Architects) has been bringing sustainable and stylish design to Aspen for over 40 years. “Every site has different opportunities,” he continues. “Our approach is biophilic—architecture and design that connects buildings and occupants more closely to nature.”

A Massachusetts native, Cunniffe arrived in Aspen in 1979, after graduating from Rhode Island School of Design (RISD). “I was brought out to work on the Hotel Jerome, which at the time was in a pretty sad state,” he recalls. “A lot of buildings in Aspen were on the verge of collapse.” Cunniffe found himself swept up in revitalizing the mountain town, quickly falling in love with it. “The winters are great, but the summers are spectacular,” he says. “Everywhere you look, there is eye-catching drama.”

A friendship with John Denver led Cunniffe to leasing his first office space from the singer. Four decades later, Cunniffe can look back on a highly decorated career—his website lists over 130 awards—in which the focus has been on creating meticulously designed spaces that are state-of-the-art sustainable, from local fire stations and the Mountain Rescue headquarters to a 15,000-square-foot 6-bedroom equipped with geothermal heating and hot water solar panels, rendering the home almost completely independent of the grid.

“Sustainability is really personal to the clientele,” Cunniffe says. “I want to make sure that what we do is a perfect fit, that a house becomes a respite from the world, where people can recharge, and then go out and do more good.” In 2020, for the seventh year in a row, Outside named CCA one of the best places to work in the country (flex time and ski passes are among CCA’s perks).

When he’s not skiing or golfing with clients, Cunniffe’s schedule includes piloting his own plane (he donates the aircraft to the nonprofit group EcoFlight), and serving on the board of directors of Jazz Aspen Snowmass. “There’s so much to do here, in terms of cultural activity,” he says. “It’s the most cosmopolitan resort town in the country.”

Well-situated and thriving, Cunniffe expresses concern over the task he and architects worldwide face now and in coming years. “We’ve got a climate that’s dramatically changing: stronger storms, wildfires, wildlife disappearing,” he says. “Resilience is an important design factor, meaning we can withstand these changes. We continually educate ourselves about the latest innovations in technology to try to help our clients understand what this is all about. That’s what we keep in mind—resilience of life.”