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In Season: Conversation with Charles Cunniffe Architects



When it comes to building a vacation home, most people have two very different philosophies. First, there’s the escapist home—usually built on the outskirts of town, tucked behind a wall of evergreens with views as far as the eye can see and without another living soul around for miles. Then, there’s the socialite home, situated closer to town, near hustle, bustle and the promise of culture, amenities and the occasional Louis Vuitton store. Each version provides its own set of pleasures, of course—whether the getaway is set in Hawaii or the Colorado Rockies. And while many owners start out creating what they believe to be a seasonal home, many are surprised when it eventually becomes their full-time residence. It is up to the architect, then, to see past the inherent transience of a vacation home and find a sense of timelessness.

Cunniffe.fullportrait_CROPCharles Cunniffe has spent the last three decades creating timeless architecture through “context”—architect-speak for ensuring that his buildings connect to their external surroundings. His eponymous firm has designed some of the most enviable contemporary resort homes in mountain destinations like Aspen, Telluride, Park City and even New Zealand, Australia and Thailand, and all have a unique connection to the land, climate and local vernacular.

One only needs to look at his body of work—from the award-winning Aspen Manor to Jigsaw Ranch, which was sold by Coldwell Banker Mason Morse last year—to see how each is a reflection of the landscape, right down to limestone slabs and cedar paneling. In honor of the seasonal home, Previews® Inside Out sat down with Cunniffe to ask him about what it takes to create a residence that stands the test of time.

201 Silver Load Drive Aspen Colorado

Jigsaw Ranch, Aspen.

Previews Inside Out You’ve designed homes in mountain resorts all over the world. What distinguishes one destination from one another, from your design perspective?

Charles Cunniffe Every place has its own unique light. The way a town or a region or even an individual building site is positioned affects its views, land and vegetation. Light gives the home its context. Aspen is unique in that it is a world-class resort—on par with the great European ski resorts. Telluride is very rugged, with narrow canyons and a smaller population—but it has some of the most dramatic views. Steamboat Springs is a more mellow ranching community; it has a big-valley kind of feel vs. a big-mountain feel. Park City—like Telluride and Aspen—has mining roots, with a grid typical of small frontier towns: there’s a downtown with commercial and smaller, flatter lots, but as soon as you move away from the grid, you’ll find larger sites where the more dramatic residential building occurs.

201 Silver Load Drive Aspen Colorado

Jigsaw Ranch, Aspen.

Previews Inside Out What do you like best about designing in Aspen?

Charles Cunniffe It’s close to home. I like the diversity of the clients—there is a sophisticated client base here—and the diversity within Aspen itself. You have the West End, where the Victorian-style homes are located (left over from the town’s mining days). There is also Red Mountain, where you have some of the area’s most dramatic views stretching from the river across all four ski areas. It’s also not far from town—just above it. Owl Creek is another area with large lots and much space around it, and there’s also Starwood with large tracts of land and large houses. There is also a high level of craftsmanship in Aspen, and as an architect, that is paramount for accomplishing quality projects.

Previews Inside Out Are there any architects—past or contemporary—who inspire your work?

Charles Cunniffe Yes. There are a few: Richard Neutra, Santiago Calatrava, Le Corbusier, Olson Kundig Architects and Lake|Flato. Neutra’s mid-century modern minimalist approach is something I try to incorporate in my work. My own house in Red Mountain is inspired by Neutra. I’ve always been impressed with his adherence to simplicity, as well as his use of light, wood and corner glass. One of my favorite materials is glass, because I believe a building should be filled with natural light and connect to the outdoors.


Frazier Homestead, Telluride.

Previews Inside Out You have said in the past that “the best designed homes take advantage of their natural surroundings instead of trying to impose on the space.” Can you describe a recent project that did this?  

Charles Cunniffe The Frazier Homestead in Telluride was crafted out of materials from the mountain. The rock on the site had fractured off the matrix of the sandstone due to the endless freeze-thaw cycle, gravity and the elements. When we looked at the rubble, its scale and color reminded me of the ancient masonry structures of the Anasazi people, Native Americans who made their homes in southwestern Colorado and parts of Utah, Arizona and New Mexico. I wanted to create a residence that suggested the same strength and durability as those ancient buildings.

We will often excavate rock from the site and bring it into the home itself. Sometimes, these homes are so contextual that it’s hard to see them.

Previews Inside Out Which colors, materials or textures do you use most?

Charles Cunniffe I like to use a lot of glass, especially if a house has a view. I also like to use dry stack stone, steel and a lot of wood—like walnut and mahogany—on the interiors. In terms of colors, we use a lot of warm grays and creams. We try to choose materials that don’t need much by way of maintenance.


Willoughby Way, Aspen.

Previews Inside Out What are the absolute must-haves right now in terms of climate control inside the home and other energy-efficient innovations for warming a ski home?  

Charles Cunniffe Advanced HVAC systems are a must, so the home is not burning fossil fuels. We also like to use geothermal heating and solar collectors, both photovoltaic and hot water.

Automated window shades are another necessity, so you can close down the areas of the house at night to maintain heat in the winter and keep the interiors cool in the summer. The light is intense here in Aspen, especially in the late afternoon. We do anything we can to minimize the requirements of man-made heating.[/a]

Previews Inside Out If you were going to purchase or build a ski home today, what would be the one element you would look for? 

Charles Cunniffe I would look for a site that has a lot of interesting elements to it—rocks, views, landscape, water and great light. It must have great light. It must have that timeless quality. I’d ask myself how it would grow with me and my family. How would it feel in the evening? How does the artificial lighting feel at night? We spend most of our time in our homes at night.


Nelson Residence in Aspen Glen, Carbondale.

Previews Inside Out What are the most popular features your clients are asking for right now?

Charles Cunniffe Everyone is so different. Some people are just starting out and growing a family. Other people are downsizing. The main thing people look for is quality—quality in materials, details and execution. They’re also looking for low-maintenance and energy efficiency. If it’s a legacy home, then they may want to involve the whole family. Most of our homes are now being done for clients who intend them to stay in their families for generations. That is why it is so important that the home be low maintenance and low cost to operate. They don’t want their family to have the responsibility of operating a home that is a burden to maintain.


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In Season: Conversation with Charles Cunniffe Architects

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