The Revolutionary Concept of Standard Sizes Only Dates to the 1920s

Wednesday, September 28th, 2016

In 1922, the German government standardized the size of office paper, and this had surprisingly far-reaching effects:

Books could now be standard sizes, making their storage and transportation easier. Mail would be easier to ship, weigh, and sort, and offices would be able to more efficiently store documents, files, binders, and portfolios.


Uniform-sized books led to standard bookshelves, standard files to standard filing cabinets. Desks could be built to perfectly hold all the paper they needed, without wasting a centimeter. Offices could be built to perfectly fit the desks. Soon different businesses like banks, libraries, and administrative offices could begin to fit together, like a machine.


By the early 1930s Neufert was an accomplished architect, and a leader in the field of construction technology. In 1936 Hitler implemented a four-year plan to prepare for war, which, among other things, involved rebuilding Berlin into a massive world capital, complete with grand, Parisian-style boulevards, new train stations, and massive apartment buildings.

In 1938 Hitler’s chief architect Albert Speer hired Neufert to, as Speer put it, “oversee the standardization of building parts, and the rationalization to building methods.” He got to lead his own team of designers and technicians. They were called The Neufert Department.

For the project to succeed, construction had to happen quickly and cheaply, and Neufert had to figure out how to streamline and simplify every step of the process. Trying to meet these demands, Neufert thought back to the A Series of paper formats, and what had made them so successful.

The beauty was in this standard’s ability to affect not just paper, but everything that interacts with paper—desks, drawers, offices, mailmen. To have a similar ripple effect throughout all of construction and design, what, then, should you change?

The bricks, of course.

And so he did. He created the Octametric Brick, a standard-sized masonry unit that would come to replace any other sized brick in Germany (the bricks were 12.5 centimeters wide, or one-eighth of a meter, hence its name). Adoption of the brick, as Neufert saw, would create a standardized, modular world that all construction would occur in—no more custom shapes or sizes within buildings, no more worrying that cabinets would be the same height as the stove.

With the Octametric Brick, buildings could still look different and be different sizes, but everything, when reduced to its smallest part, would have this as a base unit. This overarching uniformity, based around the dimensions of a single brick, would be called the Octametric System. Even if products were made of other materials, under this system their dimensions would always have to be evenly divisible by one-eighth of a meter. Everything would finally fit together.

The Nazi government loved it. The Octametric System helped solve several construction issues the regime faced, the most pressing of which was how make the act of building—something that had traditionally been done by skilled craftspeople—simple enough for unskilled laborers to perform. The modular nature of the Octametric System made construction relatively easy and error-proof, more like assembly of building blocks than fine woodworking or masonry.


While Neufert’s Octametric System never officially spread beyond Germany, it came to have a tremendous effect on building standards around the world. Throughout his life, Neufert continued to update his encyclopedia of architectural standards, Architects Data. Starting in the 1940s, his Octametric System began to reshape the contents of his book. Ideal dimensions within buildings were altered ever-so-slightly, so as to now be divisible by one-eighth of a meter.

Today Architects Data is one of the most popular reference books in architecture. It’s currently in its 40th edition, and has been translated into 20 languages; from France to Argentina to Iran, architects around the world open it up when trying to decide how tall to make a door, or how wide to make a parking spot. In this way the Octametric System still lives on in much of the world, even if most designers have never heard of it, or know anything about the man responsible for its creation.


  1. Bill says:

    Not to be picky, but I think standard sizes (I.e., weights and measures) were first implemented about 6,000 years ago…

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