Isabelle Duvivier, FAIA, LEED AP

Isabelle Duvivier, FAIA, LEED AP – Duvivier Architects & Community Forest Advisory Committee

As part of the AIA|LA Citizen Architect initiative, we are profiling architects that are currently engaged in civic affairs by serving on Boards, Commissions, Neighborhood Councils  or who work for public agencies.

IMAGE CREDITS:  Isabelle Duvivier, FAIA


1. What inspired you to become an architect and what were some of those formative memories that continue to shape your design philosophy?

As a math major at UC Berkeley, I was excited by how architecture seemed to be a perfect combination of art and science. Math alone was lonely; art too self-absorbed.  After one architecture class, I dumped math. I was really interested in the “Pattern Languages” of Christopher Alexander and the way peoples’ moods and impressions could be altered by architecture. I love the architecture of trees, cliffs, and water, and the invention that can be discovered in the natural world.  I am now investigating natural building skins and ways of incorporating nature into building forms.

2. What motivates & fascinates you the most (or challenges you the most) about your current role on the CFAC?

I was motivated to be on CFAC (Community Forest Advisory Committee) because I was shocked at how hard it is to get trees planted in LA and also, by how many mature trees are being cut down due to increased development sizes, lack of tree protection/enforcement, terrible tree pruning, and the Sidewalk Repair Program’s implementation. I am fascinated (and frustrated) by how many different departments in the City deal with trees and how few of them know much about the what the others are doing, making it really difficult to get answers or streamline solutions.

Specifically, I see two big issues:

A. Many street trees (and private property protected native trees, such as oaks and sycamores) are being cut down because developers are not required to consider the locations of existing trees until the end of the permitting process, instead of at the beginning when alternative design decisions might save existing trees. Additionally, the tree removal process is too easy, providing developers with little incentive to creatively design around trees. Cities such as Santa Monica and Pasadena value the ecosystem services and other important benefits trees provide and consequently have good tree inventories, Urban Forest Master Plans, and enforced tree protections.

B. The Sidewalk Repair Program, which is a result of the Willits ADA lawsuit and settlement, requires the City to repair our sidewalks over the course of the next thirty years. The City has miles of damaged sidewalks unrelated to trees, yet I am witnessing hundreds of tree removals from sidewalk repair. These large trees are doing our city a great service by absorbing carbon, slowing down rainwater run-off, providing habitat, and producing shade.  I say: why not save the trees and temporarily fix these sidewalks as they do in other cities? So what if you have to replace the sidewalk again in 10-15 years in a few locations? There are hundreds of other places that need sidewalk repair and 15 years of carbon absorption and cooling is a benefit we desperately need while our smaller trees are trying to catch up. Additionally, the City should NOT be cutting down big trees under the Sidewalk Repair Program until they have completed the required Environmental Impact Review. Why rush to cut down big trees?

As a member of CFAC, I am hoping to help the City make forward-thinking decisions and to encourage the City to look at the multi-benefits of public infrastructure. We can densify while preserving our tree canopy. The two are not mutually exclusive. Development doesn’t need to be the enemy of nature.

CFAC has been successful at promoting more funding for the Urban Forestry Division in the budget, encouraging the City to begin working towards creating an Urban Forest Master Plan, and in supporting a new “Tree Coordinator” position to help navigate the layers of bureaucracy within the City related to trees. Where we have been very unsuccessful is at stopping the tree-cutting before the Sidewalk Repair Program EIR is produced and at getting the City to look seriously at alternatives to cutting down trees under that program, such as employing permeable pavers, meandering sidewalks, or bridging.

3. As you’ve become more civically engaged, what insight can you share on how architects can become both better listeners and stronger leaders?

Our participation is critical to bureaucratic institutions where departments are separated from one another, both mentally and physically. Architects have the ability to look at problems and find thoughtful and original solutions that encompass the various stakeholders’ needs and goals. We are the match-makers who bring structures, streets, sidewalks, green infrastructure, sewers, trees, power, water, and the environment all together.


4. In the year 2018, what do you recognize to be amongst our most pressing needs?  

Right now, we must acknowledge how lucky we are to live in this wonderful forward-thinking city. We need to become more engaged to prepare for our future of increased heat, fires, drought, tree loss, and extreme weather. We need to be more inventive architecturally. How can we build a city that helps nature and works with nature? I love Blade Runner, but I don’t want to live in that city.

We must do more on an individual basis to have more compassion for people less fortunate. In my own life, I have become more politically engaged both locally and on the federal level.  We must teach our children to love nature as well as technology.

5. And what do you anticipate will be our most pressing needs in 2028?  In the year 2058??

We are losing species diversity faster than any other state in the Union except Hawaii.  In 10 and 40 years, due to climate change, we will see our native chaparral vegetation move northward and our mountains will be covered with non-native grasses. Our city will continue to heat up. We need to cool the city and stop dumping plastic in the ocean.

6.   What is your favorite city/ building/ park/ plaza/ place and why?

I just got back from a residency ( in Taleggio, in the Italian Alps, where I spent time walking, reading, drawing, and considering how to unpack through biomimicry the land management strategies of farmers and the architecture of plants and animals.  While there, I was fascinated by the diversity of life hanging from the sides of giant rocks and how these plant communities created micro-climates.

This place is naturally so beautiful: forests, fields, wildflowers, streams, and waterfalls. One might think it untouched by humans, but underneath it all, the thousands of years of human intervention have created a new sustainability that has benefited humans and nature alike. I want to see more architects make buildings perform like these thousand-year-old ecosystems — multi-benefit, cyclical, no waste, clean, efficient, and beautiful.

7.     What’s your favorite way to spend the weekend?  (What do you do for fun?  Favorite book? Podcast? Museum??)

I love going to LACMA. I garden a lot. I have a mostly native garden that’s on the Theodore Payne native plant tour, and I like to experiment with water collection devices and strategies on my own property, such as which plants do well on gray-water. My favorite book right now is The Hidden Life of Trees: What They Feel, How They Communicate — Discoveries from a Secret World, by Peter Wohlleben, a German forester and ecologist who works for the return of primeval forests. I like to draw and play board games.

Isabelle Duvivier, FAIA, LEED AP – Duvivier Architects & Community Forest Advisory Committee

Isabelle Duvivier pioneered the integration of water resources and architecture. Her accomplishments in sustainable building design, mapping, watershed and wetland conservation, and graphic representation advance the professional/public conversation and understanding of environmental and water resources.
As an advocate for the coordination of the built environment with watershed health, Duvivier’s architectural practice focuses on a holistic and rational approach to planning and design with water. Each project fosters understanding of architecture’s broader context and environmental impact. Her professional expertise shapes the study and integration of water resources into design in innovative, globally significant ways.

Through her research, Duvivier focuses on the critical need to incorporate watershed vocabulary into discussions of place and on reinforcing connections between energy use and water resources. Duvivier was the first international Green Map Network mapmaker to create a graphically enhanced, technically accurate watershed map. Her maps have inspired global resource agencies and mapmakers to rethink conventional borders and recognize that human-defined boundaries are meaningless to rain, pollution and bird migration. Duvivier uses maps to make difficult infrastructure concepts understandable. Her watershed maps
serve as international references—from India to Africa to Japan—and have been viewed by thousands at Japan Expo and 20 other international venues. They are in the permanent collection
of the Library of Congress and the New York, Los Angeles and Toronto Public Libraries. The Rockefeller Foundation invited Duvivier to the Bellagio Mapmaker’s Summit in Italy, resulting in the Green Map Atlas and website, a resource for developing nations including Cuba, Nigeria, Uganda and Romania with more than 200,000 downloads.Duvivier developed the IRWMP parks and recreation objectives and strategies, including park and open space maps, disadvantage community maps, significant ecological area maps and city maps for all of LA County. These maps identify regional water supply and water quality needs and objectives over the next 20 years by integrating strategies and projects that include water conservation, stormwater and urban runoff quality, habitat restoration and protection, wetlands enhancement and creation, recreation and open space.

Design for Wetlands & Estuaries
Wetlands and estuaries soak up upper watersheds’ runoff, clean the water and serve as incubators of
life. They are also the places most impacted by construction, infrastructure and our collective lack of environmental awareness upstream. Duvivier developed public interfaces for three important wetlands/estuaries. Her Ballona wetlands design established guidelines for public access and a blueprint for future communication. Her Malibu Lagoon Project is the first designed to naturally prevent runoff from polluting the world famous Surfrider Beach, resulting in tremendous improvements in water quality. Her exhaustive analysis of environmental and socio-economic connectivity at the Port of LA—the second largest in the world—resulted in a comprehensive pedestrian waterfront plan, the first step toward increasing regional awareness of the impact of upstream pollution.

Duvivier’s water advocacy encompasses design and construction: Her LEED Platinum Brooks project was
awarded 2012 Outstanding Home of the Year by the National Chapter of the US Green Building Council and is one of the top 10 green homes in California. It has been widely published and toured by hundreds. At the Center for Environmental and Urban Studies at Santa Monica College, Duvivier’s early vision and subsequent building and garden designs instigated and advanced the College’s sustainable building program. A three-time recipient of the Sustainable Quality Award for “stewardship of the natural environment, economic development and social responsibility” by the City of Santa Monica and its Chamber of Commerce, Duvivier was the first architect to receive the award.

Duvivier has spearheaded public and professional education on the impact of human behavior on urban watersheds. Through her maps, architecture and site planning, she celebrates water conservation and infrastructure, increasing insight into complex environmental issues. Duvivier was an invited speaker on Green Infrastructure at the 2013 H20 Conference, Green Urbanism at the 2006 National AIA Convention and 2000 APA Convention on Mapping and is a leading environmental advocate for the architectural profession in the international urban watershed movement.