“I always wind up back in Santa Monica or Venice,” Isabelle Duvivier says of her boomerang relationship with southern California. The architect’s eponymous firm has been located on the same block in Venice for 15 years, and nowadays there is little indication that Duvivier will jet off to Hungary or France again. In 2009 she and her husband, artist and Emmy-winning cinematographer John Tipton, purchased a 100-year-old bungalow in the nearby Oakwood neighborhood, foremost because Venice had zoned the lot for an accessory unit. “Unlike other single-family sites, I can develop a second unit in the back where John and I hope to house our parents when they can no longer stay where they are.”
Photo © Augusta Quirk
In order to leave room for an inserted dwelling, Duvivier added only 750 square feet to the 1912 Craftsman residence. Moreover, she exercised care with the expanded house’s visual footprint, setting back new upper-story volumes to ensure a better blend with unaltered houses in the neighborhood.
The same light touch goes for impact on the planet. Duvivier espoused passive sustainability principles, designing new fenestration as well as solar tubes and skylights to maximize daylighting and natural ventilation. No air-conditioning is required for the temperate climate, and by removing that system and installing efficient appliances and LED lighting, the renovated house is 53 percent more efficient than California’s already-strict Title 24 energy code. “I am a true naturalist and environmental educator, and I’ve made a longtime effort to demystify sustainable building,” she says, noting, “On this property I’ve tried to do it as simply as possible, choosing systems that work much like natural systems and don’t require constant oversight.” The project’s fanciest gadget is a 4-kilowatt rooftop photovoltaic array that squarely places it in net-zero territory.
In some cases aesthetics and ecological stance supported one another. For example, walls within the original 950-square-foot interior were taken down to adapt it for contemporary living, and Duvivier salvaged that century-old lumber for shelving, door framing, and stair treads inserted into a delicate structural-steel frame. Even the walls’ cellulose insulation avoided landfill: It was composted on site.
The ingenious recycling of vintage insulation underscores that the architect devoted as much attention to site and landscape as she did to the building. The project is a virtual test bed for stormwater management, in particular. Those strategies have been put to work in protecting native habitat, feeding the Oakwood community, and more.
“I’ve been following water ever since I moved back to LA 20 years ago, when I discovered that our river, though damaged, has great potential. Permeability became a really big issue for me, so all my projects address how to infiltrate water and to support watershed health,” Duvivier says. She integrated stormwater management into the earliest phases of design, too, in part because the site offered no choice in the matter: Due to topography and compacted soils, excess rainfall as well as runoff from a neighboring alley collected under the house. “I definitely wanted water not to leave my property, but not pool underneath me, either.”
Duvivier conceived a re-grading that channeled water away from the house. And instead of carting soil off site, it would be deposited into a berm dubbed “Sage Hill” toward the rear of the lot. Among companion strategies: gravel-filled trench drains, an 850-gallon swale located not far from the berm, and even removal of 4 feet of driveway to make room for fruit trees and herbs. The overall plan comprises different types of landscape features and habitats that vary according to their water requirements, runoff sources, and the availability of graywater.
“Managing water is complicated,” Duvivier says of finalizing the plan. “If you have it in the wrong location, you encourage mold and termites, whereas if you have it near a riparian tree, that tree is going to grow really fast. Suddenly you have to have expertise in several disciplines.” The location of an existing palm, as well as desired locations for a visual barrier and fruit trees, guided the other puzzle pieces into place. Santa Monica landscape professional Susanne Jett helped Duvivier choose plant cultivars and create the rocky swale.
Now, the swale punctuates a rain garden, which never takes more than a few days to absorb rain from the roof and the alley. The remaining roof runoff—about two-thirds of it—refills two cisterns. One cistern waters the fruit trees via gravity; the other nourishes the shade garden beneath the giant palm, doubling as a fish habitat and flower garden for Duvivier’s son and his friends. Both vessels overflow only occasionally into the wider garden and the perimeter trench drains, at the height of rainy season.
The graywater recycling system has outperformed expectations, on the other hand. Connected to everything but the kitchen sink, dishwasher, and toilets, its output is higher than Duvivier envisioned. (The system includes overflow outlet and shutoff valve.) In response she has simply added more hydrophilic plants to the network, which includes non-native bananas—“bananas and graywater systems are very common.” The trees and their underlying mulch fields spread to the rear corners and edges of the property.