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Industrial standards as units of measurement

The first edition of Bau-entwurfslehre was already sold out three weeks after its publication in 1936, and the second edition was published three months later. The publication aimed to contribute to the quality of life of ordinary people, which could be improved by the affordable production of decent products and housing, made possible by the division of labour, mass production and standardisation. In addition to this cultural-economic ambition, the political situation in Germany undoubtedly played a major role in the popularity of the book at the time. The Third Reich was built upon tenets such as large-scale industrialisation, rearmament and gleichschaltung (totalitarian control of society). Moreover, the normative aspect of Neufert’s industry-derived building dimensions and regulations fitted seamlessly with the disciplining of society imposed by the National Socialists. As early as September 1939, the Deutsche Industrie Normen (DIN standards) were written into law, making Bau-entwurfslehre indispensable for German architects in this imposed normative culture.

In 1938, two years after the publication of the first edition, Neufert was appointed to the position of ‘Beauftragter für Typisierung, Normung und Rationalisierung des Berliner Wohnungsbaus’ (Representative for Standardisation and Rationalisation of Housing in Berlin) by Albert Speer in his capacity as ‘General Bauinspektor für die Reichshaupstadt’ (General Building Inspector for the Imperial Capital). This position was in line with Speer’s ambition to transform the construction sector into a streamlined part of the Third Reich, through the industrialisation of the design and construction process. Neufert also joined his staff as an advisor on rationalisation issues. During his tenure, in which Speer pushed industrialisation to extremes in preparation for ‘total war’, Neufert developed a mobile ‘Hausbaumachine’ (house building machine), which could automatically produce entire rows of houses as linear extrusions. While working for the Nazi regime, Neufert also developed a new system of measurement, the oktameter, in which the division of a metre into eighths replaced the common decimal system. Again, Neufert’s starting point was the human body, all of whose dimensions could be traced to a multiplication of 12.5 centimetres. Neufert intended for the oktameter to become the new standard of the Deutsche Industrie Norm, and thus the standard for the design of all objects and buildings, a goal that is clearly reflected in the 1943 edition of Bau-entwurfslehre.

Man is the measure of all things

Neufert’s average man measures 1.75 metres (5 feet 7 inches) and occupies an area of at least 40 x 60 centimetres. Two people next to each other need at least 1.15 metres, and four people require two metres. Neufert goes into detail about the space required for every human activity, such as lying, walking and sitting, where active sitting, lazy sitting and resting each have their own specific spatial requirements. These guidelines allow the Bau-entwurfslehre to be read as a 20th-century version of the Vitruvian adage that ‘man is the measure of all things’. Neufert’s notion of modern life does not recognise individual characteristics, but performs actions in a fully standardised environment in a rational and mechanical manner..

The New Normal?

Neufert’s ideas have exerted a considerable influence on the 20th-century physical environment. The handbook reflects a human-centric concept, often represented as a Western male body, superior to non-human bodies, nature and energy sources.

The Covid-19 crisis shows how fragile and time-bound such an ideal is. Above all, it makes it clear that standardisation and regulation do not always provide answers to spatial problems. Norms and standards are never universal, and rather contribute to exclusion. Het Nieuwe Instituut's collection, like history in general, shows that developments in architecture are driven by patterns of exception and crisis. The 1.5 metre rule and other forms of social distancing—which are effective now that we have no vaccine to rely on—should therefore be viewed critically, while searching for longer term answers. The current situation offers unprecedented room for structural changes that affect the physical and virtual built environment and life within it.


  • Ernst Neufert, Bau-entwurfslehre Grundlagen, Normen und Vorschriften über Anlage, Bau, Gestaltung, Raumbedarf, Raumbeziehungen, Maße für Gebäude, Räume, Einrichtungen und Geräte mit dem Menschen als Maß und Ziel Handbuch für den Baufachmann, Bauherrn, Lehrenden und Lernenden. 271 Tafeln mit 3600 Zeichnunen, Berlijn, Bauwelt-Verlag, 1940. Between 1936 and 2018 approximately 800.000 copies of Bau-entwurfslehre were published.
  • Simone C., Niquille, ‘What does the Graphical User Interface want?’, in: Marina Otero Verzier en Nick Axel, Work, Body, Leisure, Rotterdam, Het Nieuwe Instituut, 2018, p. 211-231
  • Gernot Weckherlin, Walter Prigge, ‘Ernst Neuferts ‘Bauentwurfslehre’ zu den modernen Disposition der Optimierung, Disziplinierung und Gleichschaltung’, in: Der Lehrbuchdiskurs über das Bauen, Zürich, 2015, p.244-261.
  • Anna-Maria Meister, ‘From Form to Norm: The Systematization of Values in German Design 192x-195x’, in: Workbook 14-15 van Princeton University School of Architecture, 2014, p. 150-152. Workbook; Formatting Modern Man; From Form to Norm
  • Gernot Weckherlin, Zur Systematik des Architektonischen Wissens am Beispiel von Ernst Neuferts Bauentwurfslehre, Tübingen/Berlijn, Wasmuth, 2017.
  • Urtzi Grau, Cristina Goberna, (Fake Industries Architectural Agonism), 1936, Prolog, 2012, The Neufert Variations, 0047 Gallery, Oslo (Online
  • Walter Prigge, Ernst Neufert Normierte Baukultur im 20. Jahrhundert, Edition Bauhaus Band 5, Frankfurt/New York, Campus Verlag, 1999.
  • Wolfgang Voigt, ‘’Triumph der Gleichform und des Zusammenpassens’’. Ernst Neufert und die Normung in der Architektur’, in: W. Nerdinger, Bauhaus-Moderne im Nationalsozialismus. Zwischen Anbiedung und Verfolgung, München, 1993.