The ULTIMATE list of ARE study material (Part 3: The Vignettes)

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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.

banner - Ultimate List of ARE Study Material for the Architecture Registration Exam

Welcome to the Ultimate List of 4.0 ARE Study Materials. If you are looking for information regarding ARE 5.0, please click here to be redirected to The Ultimate List of 5.0 ARE Study Materials Part 1.

The 5.0 list of each exam has its own blog post, and you can find all those links inside Part 1.

Part 3: The Architecture Registration Exam Vignettes

At the beginning of the studying for the architecture registration exam, the vignettes were one of my biggest challenges. I spent an enormous amount of time trying to get the hang of how to use this software. I got lost in the linguistics of the program and code language. I didn’t know about the online forums and I spent a lot of my time learning the hard way. Eventually I found my way with the vignettes and started to actually enjoy them.

As the last part of this 3 part series about the ARE study material, I will tell you everything I know about the graphic vignettes.

If you haven’t checked out Part 1 and Part 2 of this series, I highly recommend it.  In the Part 1: Study material overview,  I run through some of the basics to start studying, how to locate materials and I provide list of materials and resources that can be used for all the exams. In Part 2: Each specific multiple choice exam, I provide a brief overview of each exam, a brief summary of what the vignettes are like, what my experience was and then share the information that I found useful.

In this Part 3, Instead of giving you step by step instructions about passing each vignette. I am going to zoom out and talk about them in more of the big picture kind of way. There are plenty of other people who give the step by step details and they do a much better job then I ever could. Hopefully this post sheds some light on some gray areas you may have, gives you helpful tips and possibly changes how you have been thinking about the vignettes.

Contrary to what NCARB or anyone else says, In my opinion at the core essence of the vignette, it is testing your ability to do 3 things:

  1. Ability to follow directions.
  2. Ability to recognize and respond key information.
  3. Ability to hack out a graphic solution with the NCARB software.

Anyone can learn how to do these vignettes with enough practice. I don’t believe having a fancy architecture degree or being an all-star in design studio are prerequisites to succeeding at the vignette. In fact I believe those may actually make it harder for you. One of the best things you can do when you are working on vignettes is to forget everything you already know about CAD, codes, design and construction. NCARB has a very specific way on how they want it done and many times the way NCARB wants to see it, conflicts with real world knowledge. This is where it goes back to following directions.

NCARB SPD Exam vignette - Ultimate List of ARE Study Material for the Architecture Registration Exam

The awful software

The NCARB Software definitely isn’t the right tool for the job. It’s dumb, not precise and if you know anything about CAD it will be counter intuitive.  Using it kinda feels like your trying to hammer a nail with a monkey wrench. Sure, it works but its definately not the right tool for the job.  The software also makes you to do backwards things that you would never do in practice like: figure out a pitched roof and all its vertical elements or design a multi-level staircase, from a plan view only.

Just like autocad, the software has its own sequential steps that need to be clicked in a certain order to accomplish a task. With enough practice, the software stops being an added challenge and you can quickly get the job done. It always helped me to think about the vignettes as if they were an architectural video game.

My approach to vignettes

Looking back this was essentially my process for learning the vignettes:

  1. Always start sooner than later. Don’t wait until the last minute. Some vignettes are harder then others. Don’t assume you wont need a lot of time on the vignette because of your previous vignette history.
  2. Start drawing the vignettes by looking at the solution and copying it. This allowed me to get comfortable drawing it and using the tools without frustration.
  3. Practice solving the solution differently than the NCARB correct answer. Focus on understanding all the different elements.
  4. Start posting it online & commenting on others. Participation in the online discussion is the key to passing the vignettes. See my notes below.
  5. Practice other versions and post them.  Get your hands on the 3.1 version, alternates, Dorf, Ballast, Kaplan or any other alternate vignette you can get your hands on.
  6. Look for opportunities to simplify, speed up and cross or double check the work. Look up other peoples step by step solutions to see what I could learn from their methodologies.


Here are some resources that I used to get up to speed for each vignette. A lot of these books have alternate vignettes printed inside for you to tape up to your drafting table and work out with your drafting pencils, triangles and T-square. I would typically just solve these on a sheet of tracing paper in a coffee shop. My method was to copy the basic shapes onto little pieces of trace, lay it out the pieces and then trace a new clean copy.

My goal of doing this was to practice understanding the program and finding solutions. I wouldn’t worry so much about the accuracy or the details.


ARE Advisor

ARE Advisor logo

I really like the ARE Advisor product.  He takes the ARE Practice vignettes and in a very organized manner, breaks them down into easy to understand step by step directions showing how to arrive at the solution.

The NCARB Study Guides really do not tell you much. They just show you the passing and failing solution and say absolutely nothing about arriving there. The ARE Advisor has taken the mystery of getting from Point A to Point B.  I wish this product was around several years ago to hold my hand through learning the practice vignettes.  I always struggled when I started to learn each vignette and essentially figured it out through a ton of trial and error.

He charges $100 for all 7 divisions which in my opinion is pretty cheap, compared to Dorf.

Heres a link to the ARE Advisor

Professor Norman Dorf

Picture of Professor Dorf - Ultimate List of ARE Study Material for the Architecture Registration Exam

God Bless Professor Dorf. He passed away in 2007, shortly after he published his book and recorded the video series. I bought his book called Solutions and used it for every single exam. It’s a great book and I would almost always use his method as a starting point. His book also has practice vignettes that are really good.

In his video series he breaks it down step by step with his methodology to passing each vignette. I purchased his videos for my first test CDS and it was really good. It got me up and running very quickly. As I moved through the exams I felt I didn’t need the video, but I would highly recommend to anyone who is struggling with understand a vignette. I also wouldn’t recommend buying all the videos all at once, at a discount for $425. Just get them as you need them.  Dorf only talks about vignettes and most of the info is actually in his book.

When I bought the CDS video, it included an additional video where Dorf gives out some really good information about the basics of the vignettes. I got a lot good beginner stuff from his additional video.

Click HERE for NALSA Publishing


Kaplan and Ballast

Ballast CDS Book - Ultimate List of ARE Study Material for the Architecture Registration Exam         Kaplan Site planning vignette book - Ultimate List of ARE Study Material for the Architecture Registration Exam

I used both Ballast and Kaplan heavily during the exams for the multiple choice sections.  I always felt like the other resources were much better at discussing the vignettes. Ballast writes about vignettes in the ARE Review manual  (and its ok) and then he gives practice alternates seperately in the practice exam books. Kaplan sells their vignette info separately from the multiple choice material. I highly recommend the Ballast Practice Exam Books over the Kaplan vignette information. I always looked at the Kaplan stuff because I already had it, but the material isnt that great on the topic of vignettes.     Click HERE for Link to Ballast Practice Exams            Click HERE for Link to Kaplan Practice Vignettes       


sbyrktct - Ultimate List of ARE Study Material for the Architecture Registration Exam

Tons of great ARE knowledge here. Click Here for link to  SBYRKTCT'S ARE Help


Gang Chen

Picture of Gang chen - Ultimate List of ARE Study Material for the Architecture Registration Exam

Chang Chen has some great insight on the vignettes. He offers a step by step process to finding a solution. This information is a part of his practice exam book which I also found extremely helpful on the multiple choice exams.  Here are links to Gang Chens Books:  CDS, PPP, SPD, SD, BDCS, SS, BS and the California Exam   I recently purchased several of Gang Chen’s books and wrote this review.



ARENDURANCE - Ultimate List of ARE Study Material for the Architecture Registration Exam

Jenny’s blog is the best! It’s a wonderful account of her journey through the ARE. In her excellent study guides she shares her step by step process to each vignette.  Click HERE for Link to ARENDURANCE



The Forums saved me many times with the vignettes. I couldn’t imagine taking this test without them. When using the forums you need to be very careful on how you discuss the exam.



Tips for the vignettes



Make a feet to inches conversion chart

One area the vignette that would always slow me down is converting back and forth to inches.

For example:

What is 103” in feet and inches?

How many inches is 14′-9″?

How long did it take you to get those answers?

These calculations drove me nuts, because there is alot of them and they interrupted my thought process. They also left tons of room for sloppy math errors.  Before the clock started, I made a conversion chart in 6” increments. This allowed me to quickly lookup what 103” is, rather than do the math. It also allowed me to choose between doing the calculations in either feet and inches or inches only, using whatever was easier to solve the problem.

Conversion Chart - Ultimate List of ARE Study Material for the Architecture Registration Exam
Conversion Chart

I was always so stressed out and if I could eliminate these small calculations by making a conversion chart it took another thing off the list.  I would typically make these charts before I took the multiple choice portion and several times found them useful for answering the multiple choice.


Alternates are your best friend

Alternates vignettes  helped me tremendously. It took me a little while to get the hang of how the alternates worked so let me try to explain it.

When you install the NCARB software onto your computer it installs a folder (C:\Program Files\NCARB) onto your hard drive. Inside that folder has all files associated with running the software. There is a DWG file that is essentially the base drawing for each vignette. If go into the folder and swap out the dwg file with one of for the alternates, you can now practice an alternate vignette.

Also dont forget to also use the old ARE 3.1 version for more vignette practice. I recorded a video about how to do this Learn to Swap Out ARE Practice Vignettes to ARE 3.1

How to post your vignettes online

After you finish the vignette you’ll need a graphic that you can post online. The best way to do this is by hitting Alt+Print Screen button on your keyboard to take a picture of your screen. Then go over to MS Paint, which is usually located from going to: Windows Start Button>All Programs>Accessories>Paint.  Once inside paint you can paste (Cntrl-V) the solution, save it to JPG and upload it to a forum.

The MS Paint method always seemed to work the best. I've tried using Photoshop and couldn’t seem to ever get the image size to display properly on the forum and never learned why.

You may need an old computer

Just getting the software to run on a computer, is the first battle. The NCARB practice software doesn’t really run on any other operating system other then Windows XP. It works ok on Windows 7, although it will not allow you to toggle back and forth to the program.

Here’s a list of all the things I did to work around this issue.

  1. Get an old machine that runs Windows XP just for practicing the vignettes. It will allow you to have easy access to using all the alternates. I used an old laptop until it died. Then I bought a cheap hand me down laptop with Windows XP so I could finish the exam.
  2. Install Windows XP on your Apple computer as a remote desktop. Several years ago, I used software called Parallels when I did this. This method worked for a little while but was kind of a pain the butt. Eventually that computer died so I was back to square one.
  3. Download Windows XP mode for you Windows 7. Since my desktop had Windows 7, Microsoft gave me software to run Windows XP as a remote desktop. It essentially runs XP as a piece of software and allows you to run other software inside of that. This worked great and handled the NCARB software stunningly.  Click here to find that info and if you get stuck… I can’t help you. Your on your own. I’m not an IT guy.
  4. Pay NCARB to use the practice software website. You can log into NCARBs website and access a remote desktop that has the software loaded onto it.  I tried this when it first came out and was very disappointed with the quality and I tried it on many different computers. The software felt slow and klunky and I couldn’t  load in alternates, so I gave up on it. Although this may actually work just fine for your situation, so I would encourage you to explore this option.


Commenting on other people’s vignettes will accelerate your learning curve     

Right now there are a handful of people trying to learn the same vignette you are and talking about it on the internet. You’re shooting yourself in the foot if your not working with this online community to help you with your vignettes.

Reviewing other peoples vignettes, pointing out errors, asking questions and talking about the vignette is the very best thing you could possibly be doing, next to practicing. I always started commenting and participating in the conversation about the vignettes when I was at about 40% to complete understanding. Any question that you may have, has most likely already been asked before and everyone online is very helpful. You also need to help get the people behind up to speed.

I firmly believe in the principle of helping and teaching others, as a tool for deeper learning and understanding.  The online forums are excellent example of how this works. If you are reading or using the forums to get information, you need to give back when you have information that could help others.

Make a chart and fill in the blanks

Charts were huge for me on site planning and the SD vignettes. I would draw a chart and as I read the program, just fill in the blanks. Using a chart to understand how all the pieces came together, made the design step soo much faster. The chart was also key when it came to double checking your work.

See this example of my chart for the site planning vignette.

Chart used to pass the NCARB SPD Vignette - Ultimate List of ARE Study Material for the Architecture Registration Exam
SPD Chart

Horizontally across the top has the program and code requirements: View of, Close to, Orientation, Sun/Wind or Shading Requirements and any other comments or notes.

Vertically across the left side of the page it has all the different building elements and heights. I then fill in the requirements for each building as they are presented in the program.

To also save time I would also draw the ADA door clearance diagram. When I got to that part in the program I could just fill in the dimensions on my sketch.

Charts were huge for me during the SD vignette. I developed my own foolproof method that made it really hard to mess up. Unfortunately it wasn’t foolproof enough, because after I passed the exam I tossed all my SD notes and can hardly remember how to make that chart.


Use the numbers from the program in your notes

The program is numbered. When I would copy it onto my scratch paper, I would also write the number of where I got that information in the program. This allowed me to know exactly where to go if I had a question about something I wrote on my scratch paper. As an example, I did this in the site planning chart that I posted above.


Using sketch rectangles and sketch circles to measure things

NCARB Circles - Ultimate List of ARE Study Material for the Architecture Registration Exam

Professor Dorf likes to use sketch circles ALOT to lay things out, like finding the floor to floor dimension in the building section vignette.   I found that using sketch rectangles actually sometimes are alot more accurate and leave less room for error. The software is clunky and determining the top of a circle can be tedius, rather then determining the top of a rectangle. Every situation is different and one shape usually lends itself better to accomplishing the same thing.


Triple check your work

I can’t stress this enough. Especially for the calculations. As you develop your method, find moments to check your work before you move onto the next step. For example, triple check all your calculations before you start drawing the stair.

draw tool - Ultimate List of ARE Study Material for the Architecture Registration Exam

At the end of each exam I would also click on the draw button and go through each element to make sure it was used and nothing is being forgotten.  It could be something easy, like forgetting to draw a grade line in the building section vignette. Forgetting the grade line, will cause you to fail the entire exam. It seems silly, but without the grade line you dont know how deep the footings are and if they arent deep enough, it is a fatal error.

Don’t use other people’s standards

Everyone learns differently. When someone says “This vignette was easy I only spent 5 hours learning it and I aced the test.” That doesn’t mean it will take you 5 hours. It realistically could take twice that. You just don’t know. All the vignettes are different and some are a lot more harder then others. Always start working on the vignettes as soon as you start studying for that test. If you wait until the last minute, you will fail the test. They aren’t hard, but they do take a lot of practice.

You’re doing a great job

This is a really hard test and if you are reading this blog post needing this information you have already achieved some serious accomplishments at becoming a licensed Architect. Whatever you do, DON’T STOP WORKING ON IT IF YOU FAIL AN EXAM

I firmly believe failure is actually giving up after you have encountered a setback.  I dont believe failure is  failing a section because you forgot to draw the stupid grade line. We’re all human and we're not perfect.

Becoming a licensed Architect is a lot of work , NCARB doesn’t just hand these licenses out.  If you keep working hard and showing up, you will eventually get there.  Good luck with your exams.

That’s a wrap. This is the end of my 3 part series around creating the ULTIMATE list of ARE Study Materials. If you haven’t checked out Part 1 or Part 2, you definately should. There is alot of great info there.

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Good luck with your exams


Read the full series
This post is part of a series on NCARB's Architect 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 Architect Registration Exam Series.

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Michael Riscica

Michael Riscica is a Licensed Architect, and the creator of Young Architect, an online platform and community dedicated to helping the next generation of Architects become the most successful generation of Architects. 
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Hi there!

I’m Michael Riscica, the guy behind Young Architect. I write to help Architecture Students, ARE Candidates and Young Architecture Professionals be more successful at school, work and life!


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