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close this bookHabitat Debate - Vol. 5 - No. 2 - 1999 - Construction and Architecture (HABITAT, 1999, 60 p.)
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View the documentSustainable Architecture: A Definition
View the documentBuilding Homes to Build Local Economies
View the documentAffordable Housing: The Kenyan Experience
View the documentTowards Gender-sensitive Architecture
View the documentHow Urban Design Can Support Children's Rights
View the documentA Cross-Sectoral Approach to Housing for Older People

Towards Gender-sensitive Architecture

by Diana Lee-Smith

Some twenty years ago, one of my neighbours first stimulated my investigations into gender sensitive architecture. She was trying to cook on a charcoal stove on the plastic tiled floor of her kitchen in our up-market part of Nairobi, the capital city of Kenya. She proudly described her design solution, consisting of an old tyre and some sackcloth to put under the stove to protect her nice floor. Watching the white ceiling darken above her stove, I began to realize that professional ignorance of the circumstances in which people live has a gender aspect as well as a cultural aspect.

While teaching architecture at the University of Nairobi in the 1970s I had already realized the sometimes ridiculous gaps between East African lifestyles and the type of designs I was used to building. My curiosity was roused by the results of surveys the students carried out on how families in different parts of the city were using buildings. In apartment blocks, cooking was mostly done on balconies and staircases, while kitchens were often used as extra bedrooms by large families.

One result was an overhaul of the architecture curriculum, encouraging students to investigate the rural roots of urban social life and to be more creative about building design. Another result was the beginning of more systematic research on building use and adaptation1. It was during the investigations of our own neighbourhood that I and my colleagues came across the gender differences.

One of the men we talked to first drew our attention to the issue, pointing out that the kitchen and living area was arranged in such a way that it tended to be a woman's place, whereas there was no men's place as is the custom in rural homes. Research in 1985 showed that 83 percent of Nairobi households were using charcoal to cook with. Although almost all households used more than one fuel type for cooking, only 14 percent used electricity, 25 percent used gas cylinders, and 61 percent used kerosene, making charcoal the most common fuel by far. This accounts for why the women, always responsible for cooking, stressed this as an important aspect of building design.

Although the use of charcoal is still prevalent in many urban homes in Africa, architects do not take this into consideration when designing kitchens.

© UNCHS/P. Wambu

Women went to great trouble to light their stoves and cook in these row houses. They had trouble lighting the stove outside the kitchen if it was raining because there was no overhang, or if they had a car outside because it was dangerously near. Most carried the stove across the living room to the back garden and back to the kitchen when lit, crossing their children's play area. Thus, when most of the smoke had subsided, they could cook inside.

Although it is likely that the fuel use figures may have shifted in recent years, charcoal and even firewood are still used for cooking in urban areas. At least in Kenya, floor and kitchen designs have also changed, with more cement floors and outside covered cooking areas. However, fuel stores are not routinely designed in houses and neither are fuel supply points planned in neighbourhoods. With the exception of a few “experimental houses”, there are no chimneys in Nairobi kitchens, while the Kenyan building regulations are silent on the dangers of carbon monoxide fumes from burning charcoal. It is also worth noting that Nigerian researchers are investigating the increase in urban use of firewood resulting from economic decline2.

Africa is not the only region where a lack of gender sensitivity in architecture shows up most in the design of kitchens. Above all, this appears in the lack of sensitivity to the predominant fuel type used for cooking and how the buildings are designed to accommodate this. There is also the problem of cramped spaces for cooking, in disregard of the convenience, as well as the health and safety, of the people - women - doing the cooking.

Throughout Asia, researchers have found women cooking with smoky fuels even in cramped spaces in apartment buildings. In China, a group of university women based mainly in Nanjing and Beijing formed the “Design and Research Group on House Kitchens”3. During the 1980s and 1990s they carried out research on kitchens and applied this to developing better designs. Similar initiatives have been taken in Viet Nam and in other parts of Asia. Again, these have led to some changes in design and planning of buildings as networks of researchers and women's networks link up their efforts4.

As urban housing is built, architects give precious little attention to the actual needs and situation of the people who are going to live in their buildings, especially women. Women in unplanned informal settlements are in a considerably worse situation from the housewife in her African plastic-tiled kitchen or the Asian apartment block. They have to cope with an almost total lack of services and often harassment of their daily activities as well.

Many women have jobs in the informal sector and need to use the home as a workplace if they are to earn money and look after the family. Few low-income houses are designed for this, and building regulations may even prevent it. And, as was pointed out in the preparatory process for the Habitat II Conference, most of the services needed by women are not the ones provided by the authorities, even if they were to provide services to informal settlements, which is not the case at present5.

In unserviced settlements, women have to fill the gap by providing those services to their families. This is because of expectations about the division of labour between men and women in most urbanizing societies. It is usually the women who carry water to the home, clear away refuse, dig drains, bale out flood water using buckets, fetch fuel and so on6.

Yet these women's problems would by no means be solved if by some miracle they were transported to the house with the plastic tiled kitchen or the apartment block. Apart from the fuel problem they have other matters to contend with.

Many poor urban women and men engage in crop growing and livestock keeping. They need small gardens suitable for this. As mentioned, they need workspace in the home or neighbourhood, and most of all they need privacy for different functions in the home. The small spaces and overcrowding in low income informal settlements and planned housing cause severe problems for women and men and for growing children.

Men and women use space in the home and even the workplace and other public spaces differently. Apart from their different tasks, there are strongly-held beliefs in some cultures about how men and women use space, and these vary enormously. Women and men also have different habits and preferences. These come from a complex mixture of their culture, traditions, and personalities apart from how they earn a living or divide up the work at home. Architects and planners are beginning to study these questions7.

By studying the changes people made to their housing in Nairobi as well as what they said about it, we found that middle income people needed separate spaces for men and women, as well as for adolescent children, especially boys, who are traditionally not allowed to stay in the same house as their mothers. Thus separate structures were built for growing boys8.

A process of consultation about family needs can work faster than research and lead to better architectural designs. SPARC, an Indian NGO, has slum women build cardboard life size models of houses they would like to have9. Apart from the obvious need for more land for urban settlement so that people have more space, building designs, and regulations, have to take into account their actual needs.

Men and women tend to use buildings differently because, in many societies, they do different things. Although this is becoming less and less the case in industrialized and post industrial economies, throughout much of the world there is a clear division of labour in the home as well as the workplace.

These arrangements have grown up over time in all societies as they cope with their particular climate, systems of production and available resources. They are at the very basis of culture, which is why there is often resistance to changing them, or even questioning them. And yet it is obvious that they are always in a state of change as families and societies adapt to different technologies and other circumstances. One of the most major changes in families, in the things men and women do, happens with urbanization.

Despite the fact that societies in different parts of the world begin from very different cultural assumptions about what men and women do and have very different buildings adapted to their circumstances, urbanization often comes with a whole new set of assumptions and conditions which are imposed from elsewhere. This includes the buildings, whose form and construction may be based on completely different climates and culture.

Developing appropriate designs for local conditions is one of the least often mentioned advantages of self-help housing. People who build for themselves can adapt materials and technologies to suit their own needs, thus participating as designers of buildings. Women as well as men have to take part in decisions about what is built if the architecture is to be gender sensitive. The African housewife struggling with her stove probably wishes she were back in her village where this process happened as a matter of course.

Diana Lee-Smith is the Co-ordinator of the Gender Unit at UNCHS (Habitat).


1. Diana Lee-Smith, Davinder Lamba and Pyarali Memon, “Housing Design and Family Needs in Nairobi, Kenya”, Ekistics 48:287, Athens, 1981

2. I bidun Adelekan, University of Ibadan, personal communication.

3. HIC Women and Shelter Newsletter 3, 1991 and 4, 1992, Nairobi.

4. Maria Nystrom, Kitchen and Stove: the selection of technology and design, Teknologie Licentiat Thesis 1985, Lund, Sweden. Tran Hoai Anh, Modelling the Vietnamese Kitchen, Thesis 5, 1994, Lund, Sweden, Maria Nystrom, FOCUS Kitchen Design: a study of housing in Hanoi, Teknologie Doktor Thesis 1994, Lund, Sweden.

5. Global Strategy for Shelter to the Year 2000: Sub-Regional Seminars to Support National Action, UNCHS, 1991, p.43-45.

6. Diana Lee-Smith, ed. Women Managing Resources: African Research on Gender, Urbanization and Environment, Mazingira Institute, 1999, Nairobi.

7. Olga Segovia, “The woman dweller: use, behaviour and meanings in public space: a study of two poor barrios in Santiago, Chile”, and Munira Daifalla, “Women and house design in Khartoum”, papers presented at the International Seminar on Gender, Urbanization and Environment, Nairobi, 1994.

8. Lee-Smith, Lamba and Memon, op. cit.

9. Beating a Path, SPARC, Bombay 1992.

(See also box below)

House Model Exhibitions

The term “House Model” was first coined by Mahila Milan, a women's collective that works in slums on issues of savings, credit and housing, in 1987 when women slumdwellers from Mumbai began to design houses in which they would like to live, and which they created to combine financial viability, capacity to construct (and subsidise costs as a result) and get loans for. At that time, no one believed that poor community women could design and construct houses, much less get loans for them. They had to begin by convincing their own communities. Yet along with the communities they also had to make professionals in housing, municipal and government officials and financial institutions believe in this process.

As a result, once they had developed four optional designs, they came up with the idea of doing an exhibition at which they would build life-size house models using wooden structures covered with cloth, and actually set up a running household inside them. This exhibition was held at the end of Feb 1987, and its impact far exceeded expectations.

Since then there has been no looking back. Whenever a city level federation feels it needs to move in this direction, it works with a national “team” of supporters who come a week or two earlier to assist the local leaders to set up the exhibition.

Mahila Milan is part of an alliance along with SPARC, a voluntary organization based in Mumbai, and the National Slumdwellers Federation (NSDF), a people's organization. The alliance uses housing exhibitions to serve different purposes:

(a) To educate and mobilise communities to develop internally accepted norms about housing which communities require, can afford and can construct themselves.

(b) To build capacities of Federation and Mahila Milan networks to manage, host and participate in such processes.

(c) To establish a dialogue and negotiate on their own terms with the State and its various institutions on issues of housing for the urban poor.

In the past, House Model Exhibitions were fully financed by funds raised by SPARC and were managed by the alliance. Now, however, State Housing Corporations and other actors are also contributing to the exhibitions.

For more information, please contact:
Sheela Patel, Director
SPARC, P.O. Box 9389
Mumbai 400026, India