Don’t Take the SPD Exam Until You’ve Read This!

Don't Take the SPD Exam

This post is part of a series on NCARB’s Architecture Registration Exam. Having recently completed this long process, the series examines my journey and the various things I learned along the way. Click here to see all the posts of my Architecture Registration Exam Series.

I recently sat through an excellent lecture on the Site Planning and Design (SPD) exam at the Portland AIA. In 1.5 hours, the presenter touched on all of the different content areas and provided some really valuable insight on all the little technical aspects of SPD.

I think SPD is a pretty hard test.

Everyone always says CDS and PPP Exams overlap into the SPD exam. But rather than viewing it as overlapping, I think a really good progression into the ARE’s is taking CDS, then PPP, then SPD. Each exam is very different, but the vignettes consistently get more challenging in that progression: CDS, PPP, SPD.

In my opinion, the SPD Vignettes are two of the hardest NCARB vignettes Let’s talk about the SPD vignettes for a second.


I wouldn’t schedule your exam until you can use the NCARB software to draw various parking schemes— as quickly and efficiently as possible and in different sizes and configurations (up, down, north, south, left and right).

Your ability to draw the parking lot is a major part of passing the SPD exam. It sounds silly, and it is silly. But drawing the parking lot is just as crucial as studying for the MC portion of the exam.

So plan on memorizing various layouts and their dimensions. The less time you spend fussing while drawing the parking lot, the more time you’ll have to actually solve the problem.


I learned how to read a topographic map in high school, but it took me awhile to get the hang of understanding topo’s well enough to take the SPD exam.

I think the problem lies in that basic topo knowledge just isn’t good enough for the SPD. You have to really look at the numbers and understand the different patterns of a 2D topographic map.


Make sure you really completely understand topos and how to solve the site grading vignette before you take the test.

Check out Fair Housing Design Manual

The fair housing design manual has a ton of great information about accessibility and accessible routes. It’s a very easy read. And unlike most other code manuals, there are tons of pictures!

Here is a link to the Fair Housing Design: 

Practice Questions

If you aren’t regularly using practice questions to study for the ARE, you’re shooting yourself in the foot. Check out my other blogpost, Using ARE Practice Questions To Study For The ARE.

Make a Chart for the Site Design Vignette

One of the beauties of the site design vignette is how well it ties in with using a chart to decipher the program. Here is my sample chart for the NCARB Practice vignette:


  • Horizontally across the top are the five criteria each building needs to meet.
  • Vertically across the side is the name of each building and its height.

The chart is then filled in for each building. The circled numbers match the numbered program inside the software. So if you have to go back and look up something in the original program, it helps you know where you need to look. Just remember there is five different programmatic criterias that come up. 

Also, check out the Feet-to-Inches chart on the Ultimate Guide Part 3. For every ARE Exam, I used to draw this chart on my scrap paper before the exam officially started.

Study other ARE divisions

While you study for SPD, give yourself two hours to study everything you studied in CDS—and then another 2 hours to review everything you learned in PPP. I wouldn’t go crazy studying those old divisions, but I would use this time as a refresher.

To understand the basics of climate and environmental effects, I would also spend some time reviewing the Building Systems study material.  Look for anything that has to do with sites and climate.

Read The Fundamentals of Building Construction

Yep, remember that old book from architecture school! Read the chapters on soil types, excavation, shoring systems, and foundation systems.

You’ll also use this book again for the BDCS exam. But you probably don’t need the latest and most expensive version of this book for the ARE. Here are all the different editions on Amazon to find the best price: 20032004200620082009, and 2013.

Check out the other SPD study materials.

There are a lot of great resources available for SPD.

I personally used Ballast and Kaplan. I haven’t seen Architect Exam Prep’s SPD, and I only briefly reviewed Gang Chen’s SPD. But I’m sure they are on par with all of their other excellent products.

If you haven’t already, check out the Ultimate List of ARE Study Materials Part 2 to see what other resources could help you prepare for SPD.

Moving On from SPD

After you pass SPD, You’ll probably never draw a parking lot in goofy software like this again.

After I passed SPD, I took Schematic Design (SD) because I wanted a break from reading content by this point. And that exam is just 2 vignettes with no multiple choice questions. I also think SD is a great 4th exam—because by now, you’re pretty familiar with using the software.

Good luck with your SPD exam

This post is part of a series on NCARB’s Architecture Registration Exam. Having recently completed this long process, the series examines my journey and the various things I learned along the way. Click here to see all the posts of my Architecture Registration Exam Series.

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Michael Riscica

Michael Riscica is a Licensed Architect, Founder and Head Coach of the ARE Boot Camp Coaching Program & Online Study Group.

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