Neufert: The Exceptional Pursuit of the Norm

Neufert: The Exceptional Pursuit of the Norm

In this excerpt from Reinier de Graaf's new book Four Walls and a Roof: The Complex Nature of a Simple Profession (Harvard University Press), the all-pervasive work and pedagogical practice of Ernst Neufert is put under the spotlight. Was he an architect, a teacher, or something larger than both? In examining Neufert's ardent pursuit of the "norm", De Graaf sheds light on the impact and enduring legacy of the author of Architect’s Data.

His built output—a few industrial complexes, some housing projects, and the Quelle Mail Order headquarters in Nuremberg—is not much to speak of, but his name is known to every practicing architect: Ernst Neufert, author of Architect’s Data, more commonly referred to as Neufert. [1] If the importance of an architect equals the extent to which his work lives on in others, Neufert is the most important of the twentieth century. There is probably no architect who has not used Neufert, whether as a didactic tool or as a volume of references. It contains all the necessary information to design and execute works of architecture. Neufert is enduringly popular. As of 2016, it is in its forty-first German edition, has been translated into seventeen languages, and has sold over 500,000 copies. [2] 

Courtesy of Harvard University Press

Ernst Neufert’s life maps closely to the unfolding of the twentieth century. He was born on March 15, 1900, and his first job, as an apprentice mason at the age of fourteen, coincided with the outbreak of World War I. The year the war ended, he graduated from the School of Construction in Weimar. When the Bauhaus opened in 1919, he enrolled as one of its first students and soon started to work for the architectural practice of Walter Gropius and Adolf Meyer. In 1926, at the height of the Weimar Republic, he was made head of the building department at the State Technical University of Architecture and Civil Engineering (Staatliche Bauhochschule)—“the other Bauhaus.” 

Emigration to the US after the Nazi takeover in 1933 would have been the logical next step. Neufert’s life story might then have echoed many of his colleagues: educated in Germany, ascending to stardom in the United States. Neufert did not emigrate. But even his seemingly nonconformist choice to stay in Germany was a form of conformism—a largely apolitical act. The post he accepted under the regime was that of resident architect at the United Lusatia Glassworks (Vereinigte Lausitzer Glaswerke). Even in terms of his career choices, Neufert exhibited what would become the main paradox of his life: an exceptional pursuit of the norm. 

Neufert’s collaboration with Albert Speer began in 1938. For Speer, who was then Hitler’s general building inspector for the Reich’s capital city, he worked on the categorization, standardization, and rationalization of Berlin’s residential buildings. [3] The standards he developed and promoted were duly incorporated into the Nazis’ building plans, both at home and in occupied territories. [4] By 1944 Neufert was in charge of planning the entire postwar reconstruction of Germany’s war-ravaged cities.

Unlike Speer, Neufert was never accused of collaboration with the Nazis or convicted of any wrongdoing. Technically, he did not actively participate in the Nazi war machine, and there is no record of party membership. [5] For Neufert, it was as if the whole episode never happened. After the war, he simply resumed his career as professor of architecture at Darmstadt University, and was appointed emeritus professor in 1965. 


Neufert’s involvement in the standardization of architectural dimensions and building practices, for which he is best known, started in 1926, when he began teaching at the Staatliche Bauhochschule in Weimar. Here, a compulsory module for new students was Schnellentwerfen (fast design), which allowed a very limited time to develop architectural solutions to a given brief. The academic catalog from 1929 described the class: Schnellentwerfen (fast design), which allowed a very limited time to develop architectural solutions to a given brief. The academic catalog from 1929 described the class: 

The instructor of the course speaks about the class of buildings known as “schools” and develops a series of economic, organizational and spatial questions out of their pedagogical and human meaning that are based on examples of executed buildings from the period. Then the instructor selects a few narrowly focused tasks and develops the following program in collaboration with the audience: 

A new building for the Bauhochschule is to be designed on a recently visited building site. Training workshops and residential studios are to be attached to it. The spatial requirements are known to the students. Three hours of intensive labor, then, the designs are collected. On the next morning, the instructor proceeds through the reviewed submissions on the epidiascope with specific issues in mind, and every designer must discuss and defend his or her proposal on an impromptu basis. This is followed by a sharp critique— first from one’s classmates, then from the instructor, just as one will later have to do when one becomes an architect and has to defend one’s ideas before an actual builder. The design is then reworked during one’s free time over the following three weeks. [6] 

To make the exercise as efficient as possible—this was, after all, mass higher education—students were provided with the exact same drafting tools. Neufert even insisted that the studio’s desks, documents, and storage systems conform to the Deutsches Institut für Normung (DIN) 476 standard. [7]

The DIN 476 standard is better known through the A series of paper formats. Released in 1922 and set out by German engineer Walter Porstmann, the system is based on the metric system (an A0 sheet has a surface area of 1 square meter), with fixed proportions (1:√2). These standard paper sizes allowed for increased efficiency in publishing and were first championed by the German War Ministry during World War I. [8] 

Neufert explicitly acknowledged the influence of the DIN 476 standards on his work, in his book’s opening pages: “Standard [paper] formats constitute the basis for the dimensions of furniture used for writing and record keeping. These are also constitutive of the dimensions of spaces. Exact knowledge of standard [paper] formats is important for the builder.” [9[ Neufert’s obsessive belief in standard systems even affected his book; unusually, it is the size of an A4 sheet of paper, making production inexpensive and the book easy to store and carry. Furthermore, the book engages with the notion of Existenzminimum, variously describing methods of achieving efficient spatial planning and the use of movable, collapsing furniture, such as the Pullman bed.[10] The first edition of the book, published in March 1936, sold out in a matter of weeks. 

The Book and the Method 

The publication of Architect’s Data in 1936 was the high point of Neufert’s long, uninterrupted career. Its German title, Bauentwurfslehre, translates literally as “teachings on building design,” more forceful than the neutral Architect’s Data. The work is simultaneously a handbook, a textbook, and a reference; it is a didactic treatise rather than a mere repository of data. An equivalent of sorts, the Metric Handbook, was published in 1968 for a British readership and according to United Kingdom standards, and has sold about 100,000 copies. [11] Possibly this was the impetus for the English-language edition of Neufert’s tome, released only in 1970. 

Neufert’s first edition is divided into five sections: Arbeitsvorbereitung (Preparatory work), Entwurf (Design), Bauliche Einzelheiten (Construction details), Gestaltung und Bemessung der Umgebung, der Räume und Einrichtungen (Giving shape and dimension to the environment, spaces, and domestic furnishings), and Gebäudekunde (Building types). The book includes organizational diagrams, recommended minimum measurements for spaces, exact measurements of standard-sized furnishings, and treatises on standard building typologies such as dwellings (high-rise and low-rise), factories, schools, and office buildings. [12] The 2015 German edition runs to 594 pages. 

In 1943 Neufert published a second book, Bauordnungslehre, on behalf of Speer, who, in addition to being Hitler’s court architect, was by this time his minister of armaments and war production. Often regarded as a sequel to Bauentwurfslehre, it adopts a more urgent tone toward standardization and rationalization, as critical to total war. Speer wrote: 

Total War requires the concentration of all powers in the construction industry as well. Thoroughgoing centralization, for the purpose of economizing technical powers and building mass production systems, is the prerequisite for improving productivity. . . . With this new order, one can hardly rely on arbitrary measure of building components and the parliamentary deliberations of participating manufacturing organizations. Rather, one must establish a building order in the broadest sense of the word, with a firm hand and with the collaboration of industry, in order to ease the work of the manufacturer, the planner, and the builder in equal measure. And to achieve appropriate integration of building components. Professor Neufert dedicates himself to this important task as my Representative for Standardization in the Building Industry...

Neufert himself wrote:

During the First World War, Normenlehre by Porstmann appeared, which is as relevant today as it was then. After the World War, the standard numbers were established, which as an overarching proportional system uni ed the proportions of individual standards. Since then, a very large literature on standards has emerged which actually encompasses all technical areas save that of design and construction. [13] 

Although adoption of his ideas was progressing slowly, by the sixth edition of Introduction to DIN Standards, Neufert was given a full two and a half pages to discuss his e orts to standardize architecture. [14] He was already exploring new applications of his standardizing principles. 


During the war, Neufert began to focus on one of the humblest building components: the brick. Like the A-series format for paper, Neufert’s ideal brick was based on the metric system: one meter should contain eight bricks, so Neufert named his principle “the Octametric system.” Neufert’s brick sizes were all multiples of 12.5 centimeters, one-eighth of a meter. “The logical clarity of these brick measurements will help ease difficulties associated with its implementation in annexed countries.” [15]

Neufert published his recommendations on Octametric bricks in 1941, a date that suggests sinister motives behind the obsessive drive for standardization. Not only did Hitler and Speer need to rebuild German cities quickly to keep up morale, but a standardized building system was also essential because forced laborers, prisoners, and volunteers had no prior experience in building, and the first two groups were suspected of sabotage and perhaps 30 to 40 percent less productive due to malnutrition, disease, and torture. Furthermore, with prison and slave labor hailing from all lands occupied by the Reich, a standardized building system would eliminate much miscommunication. [16] Neufert hoped that a standard grid of 12.5 centimeters could be set for all architects and builders, in effect standardizing design itself. From 1941 the SS adopted Neufert’s Octametric system in Poland and some of its furniture-production facilities. [17] Neufert wrote, “If a building is planned according to the Octametric system, the contractor only needs an Octametric levelling rod in order to organize the entire building, the axial distances, windows, doors, posts, and partitions, on a rapid and mistake-free basis.” [18] 

Neufert, however exhilarated he might have been by success, was not above self-correction. In the 1944 version of Bauentwurfslehre—in a process similar to Le Corbusier’s in developing his Modular Man—he retroactively amended measurements relating to the human body to suit his newly developed system of proportions. For instance, the ideal shoulder height was raised from 143 to 150 centimeters even though he kept the height of the human body itself at 175 centimeters. [19] 

After the war, the dubious political origin of Neufert’s brick system posed no barrier to its adoption. In 1950 his Octametric system became an official DIN standard called “Dimensional Coordination in Building Construction,” DIN 4172, which led to the prescription of standard-sized windows, doors, kitchens, bathrooms, and even ceiling heights. In 1952 DIN 152, the updated version, was enshrined in West German law: state subsidies for public housing would be extended only to builders who followed the norm. East Germany followed suit a few years later. The norms were so influential that even a few years after reunification, the only bricks available in Germany adhered to Neufert’s Octametric system. [20] 

The Importance of Being Ernst 

Ernst Neufert worked toward standardization regardless of circumstances or regimes. His work was tied to no political ideology, save for its absolute devotion to the efficiency of industry. He kept a wide network of collabora- tors throughout his life. His e orts were apolitical and, to some extent, amoral: he was a man who accepted work on plans to resettle the Aryan population in the newly conquered Eastern Europe, and a technocrat who would later argue for standardizing building and the design industry as a whole during the early years of West Germany’s Wirtschaftswunder

Tellingly, one product of his Octametric system was the Z-Möbel, a mail-order furnishing system developed by a Bavarian wood-carver, Alfred Oskar Zwink (together with prisoners from the Dachau concentration camp), using Neufert’s spatial diktat. The cupboards were quite vernacular in style but could be assembled without any knowledge of carpentry. To Neufert, this proved his standards did not impose stylistic or ideological paradigms on those who followed them. [21] This was a man who, over the course of his life, associated with the likes of Gropius, Antoni Gaudí, and Frank Lloyd Wright, as well as Albert Speer. It would seem, for the rational-above-all Ernst Neufert, that the end really did justify the means. 

The 1970s: The World Falls Out with Modularity 

For Neufert, the modular system was as much about construction as about redefining spatial realities, whether they were idealized or derived from reality. British prime minister Harold Macmillan even described modular coordination as “a way of drawing Britain and the rest of Europe closer together.” The European Productivity Agency studied modular systems in 1954, and the United Nations published detailed reports extolling their advantages in 1962 and 1966. [22] 

But by the 1970s, with the “death of modern architecture” in the cards, modularity had fallen from grace as a practicality, a mere building “method” for housing the dispossessed or the aspirational upper-middle class. Walter’s Way was such an endeavor: an experimental and self-built private housing development in South London, initiated in the 1980s by Walter Segal. [23] Back in 1964, another Walter—Walter Gropius, founder of the Bauhaus—had anticipated this rejection of modular building techniques:

Genuine variety without monotony could have been attained if we had taken greater interest and influence in the development and design of . . . standardized, component building parts which could be assembled into a wide diversity of house types. Instead, the idea of prefabrication was seized by manufacturing firms who came up with the stifling project of mass-producing whole house types instead of component parts only. The resulting monotony further deepened the horror of a nostalgic, sentimental, unguided public of a prefabricated future. [24] 

Neufert died in 1986 at the age of eighty-five, simply of old age, having lived roughly a decade longer than the average life expectancy at the time. Only in death did Neufert defy the norm. But even there, maybe he didn’t: his age exactly doubled the life expectancy of 1900, the year he was born. The total length of his life constitutes a perfect multiple—almost like the system of standard paper sizes he promoted.

A firm bearing his name, Neufert Consulting GmbH, in the village of Bergisch Gladbach just outside Cologne, carries on his work. In addition to producing updates of Architect’s Data, the company consults on human resources, organizational structures, and information technology infrastructure. [25]

Neufert is everywhere. 

Four Walls and a Roof: The Complex Nature of a Simple Profession


  1. Neufert’s built output remained extremely modest over the course of his lifetime in comparison with his wider influence, and all his buildings were built in Germany. The earliest of these was the Abbeanum and student house in Jena, completed in 1930; in 1955 he built the Ledingenwohnheim flats in Darmstadt, and he completed the Quelle Mail Order headquarters in Nuremberg in 1958 and an Eternit factory in Leimen in 1960. In the course of his residencies, Neufert contributed designs for various anonymous buildings in industrial complexes, but these have not been recorded in history.

  2. Architect’s Data,” (Wikipedia, last revision November 15, 2016), https://en

  3. “Bauleiter in Bauatelier Gropius, 1922–1925, Ernst Neufert,” 100 Jahre Bauhaus, 

  4.  Frank Zöllner, “Anthropomorphism: From Vitruvius to Neufert, from Human Measurement to the Module of Fascism,” in Images of the Body in Architecture: Anthropology and Built Space, ed. Kirsten Wagner and Jasper Cepl (Tübingen: Ernst Wasmuth, 2014), 64, leadmin/user_upload /kunstgeschichte/pdf/zoellner/Publikationen/unselbst_Publi/Anthropomor phism_from-Vitruvius_to_Neufert.pdf.

  5. Nader Vossoughian, “From A4 Paper to the Octametric Brick: Ernst Neufert and the Geopolitics of Standardisation in Nazi Germany,” Journal of Architecture 20, no. 4 (2015): 692.

  6. Nader Vossoughian, “Standardization Reconsidered: Normierung in and after Ernst Neufert’s Bauentwurfslehre,” Grey Room 54 (Winter 2014): 41.

  7. Ibid. 

  8. Ibid., 38–39.

  9. Vossoughian, “From A4 Paper to the Octametric Brick,” 684; Vossoughian, “Standardization Reconsidered,” 39.

  10. Vossoughian, “Standardization Reconsidered,” 43–44.

  11. David Adler, preface to Metric Handbook: Planning and Design Data, 2nd ed., ed. David Adler, tecture_Ebook%5d_Metric_Handbook_Planning_and_Design_Data.pdf ( first published as AJ Metric Handbook, 1968).

  12. Vossoughian, “Standardization Reconsidered,” 36.

  13. Ibid., 45.

  14. Ibid., 46

  15. Vossoughian, “From A4 Paper to the Octametric Brick,” 688.

  16. Ibid., 686.

  17. Ibid., 688.

  18. Ibid.

  19. Ibid., 690.

  20. Ibid., 692–694.

  21. Ibid., 688.

  22. Andrew L. Russell, “Modularity: An Interdisciplinary History of an Ordering Concept,” Information and Culture 47, no. 3 (2012): 269, /47.3.russell.pdf.

  23. Ibid., 270.

  24. Ibid., 269.

  25. Neufert Consulting GmbH,

About this author
Cite: Reinier de Graaf. "Neufert: The Exceptional Pursuit of the Norm" 30 Oct 2017. ArchDaily. Accessed . <> ISSN 0719-8884

You've started following your first account!

Did you know?

You'll now receive updates based on what you follow! Personalize your stream and start following your favorite authors, offices and users.