2022 Young Architects Award

Emerging talent deserves recognition. The AIA Young Architects Award honors individuals who have demonstrated exceptional leadership and made significant contributions to the architecture profession early in their careers.

Christopher Nielson, AIA

Christopher Nielson, AIA, uses design as an act of environmentalism, leveraging sustainable and low-carbon approaches so that both new buildings and historic structures can help address climate change. Driven by a ceaseless curiosity for building systems and enclosures, he envisions innovative solutions that strike a balance between high-performance design and embodied carbon reductions. Nielson is a thought leader in sustainability in Boston and beyond, and he has commanded regional and national audiences, counseled municipalities, and shared his broad experience in the classroom.

Nielson discovered the deep connection between environmentalism and architecture during his undergraduate studies at Vermont’s Middlebury College, not far from the mountains of New Hampshire where he grew up. Following his graduation, he worked for the Bread Loaf Corporation, a design-build firm based in Vermont, and was an important member of the team that restored Middlebury’s Town Hall Theater. His exploration of preservation continued with the National Park Service, where he measured and drew a number of historic buildings in Anchorage, Alaska, that were archived in the Library of Congress.

After completing his M.Arch degree at the University of Oregon, with a particular focus on environmental architecture, Nielson joined Boston’s Bruner/Colt Architects as a designer in 2013; he was promoted to associate in 2020. Nielson has been instrumental in many of the firm’s projects that are widely recognized for their climate stewardship. Between 2013 and 2016, he was the driving force behind the R.W. Kern Center at Hampshire College, the world’s 17th building to achieve living-certified status under the Living Building Challenge. The project also received an AIA COTE Top Ten Award.

“His work is literally moving the needle in key aspects of environmental design and changing the meaning of buildings in how they respond to our changing world.”

Nielson consistently pilots cutting-edge technologies and processes, sharing his research and results with his colleagues. He developed a protocol used by Bruner/Colt’s teams to measure and react to embodied carbon at every phase of design. As the associate responsible for the firm’s AIA 2030 Commitment, Nielson has relied on the reporting tool to show project managers how to measure and manage the operational and embodied impacts of their projects. Nielson is an affable mentor for Bruner/Colt’s younger staff, and his support has contributed to the firm’s consistent recognition as an emerging professional–friendly firm.

“He is advancing the practice of sustainable design by centering the connection between carbon and buildings—both embodied and operational carbon. He is equally skilled in the creative reuse of historic structures and high-performance new construction projects,” wrote Jason Forney, FAIA, partner and principal at Bruner/Colt, in a letter nominating Nielson for the Young Architects Award. “He brings both an open mind and a determination to his work that result in innovative, practical, sustainable strategies that I find inspiring.”

Nielson has harnessed his Living Building Challenge experiences to emerge as a strong advocate for policies and practices that advance climate action goals. He was appointed to serve as a member of the City of Cambridge Climate Protection Action Committee, assisting with the implementation of the city’s climate action plan. Through Envision Cambridge, a citywide planning and visioning effort, he was key in shaping new design criteria and metrics that informed the city’s comprehensive development plan.

As one of his region’s prominent sustainability leaders, Nielson uses his uncanny ability to translate complex topics for a broad range of audiences. He has presented on low-carbon enclosures, net zero water and energy, and building reuse strategies at conferences across the country. In addition, he has led courses on sustainability and healthy building materials at his alma maters, Hampshire College, Rhode Island School of Design, and Boston Architectural College.

“In all the various roles along his development path, Christopher has embraced the expansion of the Architect’s role in creating buildings, following trends from form making and program accommodation towards a holistic look at materials and resources, and environmental impacts writ large,” wrote Ashar Nelson, AIA, in support of Nielson’s nomination. “His work is literally moving the needle in key aspects of environmental design and changing the meaning of buildings in how they respond to our changing world.”

Image credits

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Christopher Nielson

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Jessica Schultz/Hitchcock Center for the Environment

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Jessica Schultz / Hitchcock Center for the Environment

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Bruner/Cott Architects

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Robert Benson Photography