Women in natural building

While some people think that women have no place on the construction site, others believe that the first human settlements were built by women, because, unlike men, they mostly stayed in one place to take care of the children.

In almost all cultures over the last few centuries, we are usually taught that men are the ones who build, and women are the ones who decorate and maintain houses. However, many exceptions testify that this was not always the case: women built when there were no men in the family, when they died or went to war.

Women in construction worldwide

Unfortunately, there is not much archaeological evidence that women participated in building. The first written record of women workers on construction site is from 13th century city of Navarre in Spain in building stone and wooden structures. There are many evidences about women construction laborers and skilled tradespeople from the 13th to the 17th century in England, France, Germany and Spain. But it was very socially unacceptable and seen as immoral, so they are often left off official records and/ or noted only by gender. Women were also considered physically incapable, but it seems that they did most of the unskilled works (as they often do nowadays in Africa and Asia!): carried water, dug ditches for foundation walls, thatched roofs and mixed mortar. 

Women from the middle-class could learn building trades from their fathers or husbands until 16th and 17th century, when, due to economic crises, it became reserved only for men.

However, Lady Anne Clifford (1590–1676) was the first woman to take an active role in a building project, controlling the designs and building and Lady Elizabeth Wilbraham (1632-1705) made the earliest architectural drawings.

The Industrial Revolution of the mid-18th century brought women back to the construction site with less condemnation. Engineer Emily Warren Roebling directed construction of the Brooklyn Bridge after her husband fell ill.  In 1898, Ethel Charles became the first woman in the Royal Institute of British Architects (RIBA.) Alice Perry was the first known female in engineering 1906. Elisabeth Scott first won an international architecture competition for her design of the rebuild the Royal Shakespeare Theatre in 1929-32.

Second World War was, paradoxically, the most important period for women in construction.  While the men were at war, women have taken over many jobs previously considered unsuitable for them. Ladies Bridge / Waterloo Bridge was constructed by 350 women during that period. Women being fired from these jobs after the end of the war was one of the reasons of beginning of the feminist movement in 1960s.

However, Barabara Res was the first woman to supervise constructing a skyscraper from start to finish only in 1980. Zaha Hadid was the first woman to receive the Pritzker Architecture Prize in 2004. Only in 2019, the Leonardo tower in Africa was built by a team almost completely made up of women.

Pakistan’s first female architect Yasmeen Lari, female Hassan Fati, is known for her involvement in the intersection of architecture and social justice, awarded the prestigious Fukuoka Prize in 2016 and the RIBA’s Royal Gold Medal in 2023.
Despite all the efforts of these remarkable women, only 11% of the current construction workforce is female, with female workers making up just 1% of manual trades.

Women in architecture in Serbia

Women in architecture in Serbia have been creating since the beginning of the 20th century. After the WWII, the number of women grew, but they often worked within large collectives, mixed pairs or teams, which led to difficulties in identifying and emphasizing their contribution. There is also the lack of archival material and lack of interest to present their works.

Jelisaveta Načić was the first graduated female architect from Technical Faculty in Belgrade in 1900. Jelena Tomić Bokur was the first woman to be employed in the Ministry, to the position of first-class sub-architect in 1919. Jovanka Bončić Katerinić was the first female graduated architect in Germany at University of Darmstadt in 1913. Milica Šterić (1914-1998) established the Architecture and Urbanism sector in Energoproject, a world-renowned construction company

It’s also interesting that, according to Vladimir Kulić’s data, percentage of female students at the Faculty of Architecture in Belgrade increased every decade and they are majority of students since seventies: 1973 – 51%, 1983 – 54%, 1993 – 64%, 2000 – 63%.

Women in natural building in the past

Women have always participated in the construction and maintenance of their homes in various ways: making adobe bricks, mortars, clay plasters, lime paining, decoration with pigments.

In the preparation, as well as in the use of most of these materials, there are many similarities with cooking: they used flour as glue, salt to reduce the amount of water in the mortar, eggs to stir pigments in it, ash with lime to extract moisture, but also animals’ hair, fibers, casein from milk, urine and excrement of cows and horses etc.

Building with natural materials, such as reed and earth, after the WWII, it is less and less in use, especially in cities – as a result of industrialization, the need for rapid construction on a large scale, but also because of fire protection and the supposed obsolescence of these materials. And yet, in the territory of the Western Balkans (but also in many other parts of the world), in the majority of rural areas (even in some urban areas such as Almaški kraj in Novi Sad), a large number of earthen houses have survived, thanks to regular maintenance by women – the owners of these houses.

Women in natural building today

There are many remarkable women nowadays worldwide dealing with natural building, teaching and training people how to protect their existing or build new houses: Sigi Koko[1] and Athena Steen[2] in the USA, Becky Little[3] in Scotland, Irmela Fromme[4] in Germany, Sylvie Wheeler[5] in France, Isabella Breda[6] in Italy, Zuzana Kierulfová[7] and Ľubica Gulašová[8] from Slovakia, Varvara Valtchanova[9] in Bulgaria, Alina Negru[10] in Romania etc.

There are also two women collectives: Mudgirls Natural Building Collective[11] in Canada and The Women’s Natural Building Collective[12] established in 2020 in Portugal.

Women are more and more interested in natural building, they represent 70-80 % of participants in most of the workshops we organize. Some people say: because women are so used to work with earth and with their hands, the others say it’s because they are more open to “alternative” techniques. Some people even say that there are so many women in this field as long as it’s not profitable, but once it’s about profit, men take it over.

Women were and will be in natural construction, because where else would they be?


History of Women in Construction: https://www.familyhandyman.com/article/women-in-construction-history/

Žene u arhitekturi u Srbiji, Jelena P. Ivanović Vojvodić, Žensko arhitektonsko društvo, Beograd Pregledni rad MILENA Z. ZINDOVIĆ, Žensko arhitektonsko društvo, Beograd UDC: 72-055.2(497.11) DOI: 10.5937/tehnika2003379: https://scindeks-clanci.ceon.rs/data/pdf/0040-2176/2020/0040-21762003379I.pdf

Kulić V, Žene i arhitektura: Imena, brojevi i strategije, in: Blagojević M. (Ed.) Mapiranje mizoginije u Srbiji: diskursi i prakse, drugi tom, pp.250-262, AŽIN – Asocijacija za žensku inicijativu, Beograd, 2005:

[1] https://www.facebook.com/buildnaturally/

[2] https://caneloproject.com/about-us/

[3] https://www.rebearth.co.uk/

[4] https://www.wangeliner-workcamp.de/

[5] https://www.sylviewheeler.com/

[6] https://www.instagram.com/isabellabredaterre/?hl=sr

[7] https://ozartur.sk/my-profile/?uid=3

[8] https://ozartur.sk/my-profile/?uid=47

[9] https://www.facebook.com/Atelierochra

[10] https://atelierterrapia.com/

[11] https://www.mudgirls.ca/

[12] https://www.womensnaturalbuilding.org/