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F.15 WASH Social Architecture

The WASH Social Architecture approach identifies community-based solutions using design perspectives from women and girls, guided by feminist architects and exposes the diversity of females’ experiences on the gendered use of WASH facilities.

People receiving aid should be involved in the decision making process. User or human-centred design is a creative problem-solving approach, putting the needs and experiences of the intended end-users at the centre of the design process. The focus is on the users’ needs, experiences and lives; continuously involving people through an iterative process, designing, building and re-building as needed. The WASH Social Architecture approach uses the user-centred design approach and works with different female population groups (women and adolescent girls) to understand their preferences, capacities and motivations to participate in the construction and management of the WASH facilities. Detailed designs for WASH facilities, such as laundry and drying spaces for Menstrual Health and Hygiene P.7, or materials for menstrual hygiene management P.6, bathing spaces and women’s gathering places are made with the women and adolescent girls. Each of the designs considers socio-cultural norms, privacy, safety and dignity aspects as well as the location’s topography. The approach needs coordination between the WASH, shelter, gender and protection sectors (P.9). Strategic advocacy by WASH agencies across all sectors is required, hence the approach must involve people who can influence standards (e.g. the Government), pressure organisations to align with minimum standards, upgrade existing facilities and enforce consultation as an integral part of all levels of implementation. The approach can take time to implement but results in WASH facilities that are acceptable and appropriate, rather than wasting time creating facilities that are not used and have to be replaced. The Sani Tweaks F.7 model of ‘consult, modify, consult’ drew on the findings of the Social Architecture approach and presents a versatile, simplified and easily adopted means of ensuring users are consulted and engaged in facility design.

Tools and Methods used

  • Focus Group Discussions T.14
  • Observation T.28
  • Community Mapping T.7
  • Key Informant Interviews T.23


The WASH Social Architecture approach is commonly used in urban contexts but is increasingly used in rural and humanitarian contexts. Its success in the Rohingya camps in Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh, demonstrates that the approach can be used in a range of contexts although extensive consultations might not be possible in an acute emergency. The approach can take time and care should be taken if it is used as a small pilot project within a wider area; the result could lead to unrest if there are different facilities for different groups. The key advantage is the engagement with the community in the planning and construction process, revealing their perspectives and leading to the construction and management of WASH facilities that are more appropriate to their context and needs.

Main Requirements / Investments Needed

It is helpful to have female architects to facilitate the process, working alongside the WASH engineers and hygiene promoters (with translators if needed). Time is needed to hold at least three Focus Group Discussions (FGD, T.14) with each group (adult women, adolescent girls, older women) for an initial brainstorming of the needs, design and final review of the models based on the designs. It also requires training for the team on the process, good listening skills and the effective facilitation of FGDs with women of different age groups. Teams also need materials such as paper and pencils, cardboard to make models, flip charts and marker pens to document key discussion points.

Evidence of Effectiveness

Recent research on strategies for providing menstruation-supportive WASH facilities in refugee camps in Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh, showed that innovative participatory methodologies and design approaches - such as the WASH Social Architecture approach - showed promising results, but their longer-term viability is dependent on the continuing engagement of woman and girls and the availability of resources. An evaluation of the Oxfam WASH Social Architecture programme in Bangladesh showed that, although the scale of intervention was small, the women appreciated that the programme had addressed their safety and privacy, that enabling women to design their latrines and wash areas to suit their needs had worked and there was some evidence of empowerment among the women.


  •  Consult the community in age and sex-disaggregated groups to facilitate openness in giving feedback

  •  Consult both male and female groups even if facilities will only be used by females, to support social cohesion 

  • Consult continuously from the design stage, onto the construction and usage stage of the WASH facilities


  • Do not impose ‘expert ideas’, but facilitate conversations with women and girls to develop their own solutions

  • Do not aim for fancy designs, but use the consultation process to amplify the voice of women and girls and translate their views into functional WASH facilities and spaces they prefer

Practical Example

The WASH Social Architecture approach was used by Oxfam to help design and implement menstruation-supportive WASH facilities in the Rohingya refugee camps in Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh, including building more female-friendly toilets. The project had three phases: data collection, construction and scaling up. Architects were involved in the design phase. They worked with small groups of women, encouraged different thinking, looked at the space and what could be done with it and considered the social and environmental aspects rather than using a standard design and basic engineering approach. This resulted in the creation of spaces for menstruating girls and women to change, dispose of, wash and dry menstrual materials, all of which are integral components for MHH P.7. The WASH facilities also had useful adaptations, such as hand rails/poles, water supply and more privacy.  

Key Decision Critria

Response Phase
Acute Response
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Protracted Crisis
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HP Component
Preconditions and Enabling Environment
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Community Engagement and Participation
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Assessment, Analysis and Planning
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Social and Behaviour Change
Monitoring, Evaluation, Accountability and Learning (MEAL)
Target Group
Older People
Persons with Disabilities
Local Leaders
Society as a whole
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Application Level
Individual / Household
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Community / Municipality
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Target Behaviour
Hand Hygiene
Sanitation Related Behaviour
Water Related Behaviour
Menstrual Hygiene
Food Hygiene
Personal Hygiene
Environmental Hygiene
Vector Control
Solid Waste Management
Infection Prevention and Control
Hygiene Away from Home


To engage women and girls in generating appropriate, gendered WASH facilities


Background information on WASH Social Architecture and case study from Bangladesh

Schmitt, M., Wood, O. et al. (2021): Innovative Strategies for Providing Menstruation-Supportive Water, Sanitation and Hygiene (WASH) Facilities: Learning from Refugee Camps in Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh, Conflict and Health 15, 10

Farrington, M. (2019): Social and Feminist Design in Emergency Contexts: The Women’s Social Architecture Project, Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh, Oxfam

Final report of the first phase of the Oxfam Social Architecture project

Farrington, M. (2018): Women's Social Architecture Project – Phase 1 Final Report. Oxfam Rohingya Response. Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh, Oxfam

Case study (incl. definition and description of the process)

Bourne, S. (2019): User-Centred Design and Humanitarian Adaptiveness, ALNAP, ODI