I passed my fifth ARE Division, Project Planning and Design (PPD), on Oct 30, 2019. I can feel the finish line now with only one more to go. I started at this time last year with a lot of self-doubt, so having 5 out of 6 passed in a year is really encouraging to me.
There is a lot of new content to study but I wanted to share again some of my experience with studying for the test that led me to this point:
- I started studying soon after my previous test but really hit high gear 3 weeks before the test. You need to spend much more time studying for this test than any other test. Also this test blends into the next test Project Development and Documentation with a lot of shared materials so you want to retain knowledge for the other exams. I highly recommend studying and passing Programming and Analysis before taking this test. If you fail PA, you will fail this test. This is by far the toughest test I’ve taken in the ARE because you both have to study the overall concepts AND the details of certain concepts. People on the forum recommend taking this test first or second because it’s the toughest so that they want to get it out of the way…but I think that is a recipe for failure. All the things I have been studying for the past year like programming spaces in PA and cost estimating in PjM helped me on this test.
- I studied the Ballast 5.0 study guide and later the Ballast Practice Exam, the Kaplan ARE 4.0 material, and Site Planning and Design Handbook, one of the recommended books by ARE. This book covers site planning, soil and earthwork, and environmental reviews, all of which were covered on the actual test. I also used Building Codes Illustrated to review code. I recommend this book if you do not do a lot of code review. Architect’s Studio Companion is one the key study materials for the test, I got a previous edition for quite cheap online.
This is a good resource of what is good and not good to get to study for the test:
- There was a lot of carryover from the previous PA test. Things like site design, environmental design, and code and occupancy is tested for this exam. This is a good resource showing the difference between the ARE 4.0 vs ARE 5.0. https://www.ncarb.org/sites/default/files/ARE5_CreditModel.pdf See how the PPA test is 5 colors, that is what makes this test so hard. You have to study all those concepts for the test. You need to study Building Systems and Site Planning and Analysis sections of the ARE 4.0 material.
- Study the Standards of Historic Preservation and the difference between preservation, rehabilitation, restoration and reconstruction.
- Unless you do code review every day, understand building occupancy groups, building construction types, building allowable areas, and know how to calculate an occupancy load. CRITICAL - I got a lot more questions on these things on this test than even on my PA test. I had detailed questions in both the questions and case study about use groups, construction types, egress, occupancy types. They will make you read through a sample code. Understand what is found in the building code vs what is found in zoning ordinances, this will save time in the case studies looking for the right information. You don’t need to memorize code but you should know what section to look for to answer a question. There is a table of contents to help you out in sample code in the case study.
- Understand FAR ratios, and Net\Gross Ratios and building efficiency of different building types. Understand how local zoning ordinances affect your site and building analysis. You must understand the concepts of setbacks, easements, parking requirements and flood/wetland zones. I got so many questions on these things, you will begin to wonder if they gave you a PA test by mistake.
- Understand programming at the schematic AND design development design phase. How to assign spaces in a plan based off a client program. There were a lot of questions about assigning spaces (as expected of PPD test). Most are common sense but there are a lot of graphical problems where you drag and move spaces or labels or fill out an adjacency diagram or floor plan. I had to do this on this test just as much as I did the PA test. In fact I felt the questions were much harder than the PA test which seem to only go into the overall concepts of Programming. I had questions on adjacency and locating uses based on a program.
- There were a lot of questions about how to environmentally site a building based of a topography, climate, and solar orientation. Again it went into the details like daylighting, solar orientation and building forms. Really pay attention to solar gain, cross ventilation and daylighting.
- I had a lot of questions on structural concepts. Not a lot of calculations, but ideas like moment, shear, how a building responds to forces. I wish I prepared more for this part of the test, because I thought it would mostly be in PDD. I had a ton of questions on wind loads, earthquake loads and bending diagrams. Understand why an architect would choose certain structural systems like precast or steel I-beams or trusses. Do not focus on super detailed calculations but more concepts of how a building is loaded and what you have to do to prevent or fix a problem. How to design a building to resist Lateral loads like wind and earthquake is tested. One thing I read on the NCARB forum that really helped was a FEMA document on earthquake-resistant design. Read this entire document, you will be tested on this material.
- There were a lot of questions about plumbing, mechanical, and electrical systems. The best resource I had on this was the Kaplan 4.0 Material and the Architect’s Studio Companion. Seriously, you must buy this book, it seemed like half of test was a test on this book. You will get questions on how to select a mechanical system, how plumbing systems are constructed, and how an electrical system is sized and difference between voltage need say by a residence vs a large building. You will get questions on lighting indoor and outdoor spaces. You will get a question on how to calculate a plumbing fixture count using an example of code. This was by far the hardest part of the test for me, since generally in the work place, you hire engineers for these sort of things. So any knowledge that I knew was very basic concepts. For example, if you don’t know what a VAV box is and where it is located and what type of HVAC system that is used for, then start studying. Even after studying, you will get questions that will total stump you. In this case remove the obviously wrong answer and guess among what is left.
- There were questions about selecting vertical transportation like escalators and elevators. The best resource I had on this was the Kaplan 4.0 Material and the Ballast Material. Understand the different types of elevators and what their best usage was.
- I had questions on cost estimating for the Design Development phase of the project. I had questions on fire-protection and sprinkler systems. I had questions on acoustics. The best resource I had on this was the Kaplan 4.0 Building Systems and the Ballast Material. I also had some construction detailing questions. As if you needed more things to study.
- I studied 1 hr every day either at lunch or after work then 3-4 on Saturday and Sunday. I tried to not do more than 1 hr of studying at a time. The hardest part was removing distractions, so lunch studying at work may or may not work for you. You have to figure out the time and place for your studying but there is no way I could do it in less than at least a month of studying
- READ the NCARB ARE handbook and study the required concepts. If you have a doubt of “is really going to be on the test” look back at the require concepts and whether not it applies. Look at the reference materials and concepts.
- The best resource I had for studying is the ARE 5.0 community found at the My NCARB site. I found other people testing experiences, study guides, and words of wisdom. I found these threads the most useful on figuring where I needed to study:
- The Ballast study guide is very useful for concepts but I emphasize that the test might pull from more than one division therefore you cannot assume to just study one division and be done. This was especially the case for this test. I felt I had to read from PA to PDD. The sheer quantity of material is quite daunting. I watched videos on YouTube for concepts to break up the studying. Couple good ones are the Hyperfine videos and the Black Spectacle practice exams on YouTube that are free. One tip is that you can speed up the videos on YouTube by 1.25 or 1.5X to speed up content you are already familiar with.
You do not need the Amber or Hyperfine or other 3rd party study materials to pass this test. Any concept can be researched on the web or found in the Ballast or Kaplan books. 3rd party materials just consolidates all that disparate information into a study guide, study plan and sets of questions. This sounds great to not waste time on non-tested material, but one danger is to use only one resource, then if something that comes up on the test that wasn’t part of the guide, you will be lost because you do not understand the concept behind the idea. Also studying the same concepts in multiple forms can get boring but it helps with knowledge retention and spotting typos (which there are many in Ballast and Kaplan).
- I took the Ballast practice exam to see where I was and I barely got over 50 percent right, which was very discouraging but this pushed me to study more material. I would restudy areas and retake the question until I got every question right. I retook the test completely and got 70% percent right. The difficulty of the ballast test was around the same difficulty of the actual exam minus the calculation questions which I found useful come exam time.
- This test is a MONSTER that tests your organizational skills and patience. You will be overwhelmed by the quantity of new information. The only way to judge if you retained information is to take the practice tests. I actually took the Ballast Practice Exam twice, the Designer Hacks free PPD exam, and I also took ARE 4.0 Kaplan Building Systems final exam as a timed test as practice the weekend before the real test. This really helped to review material on the test.
- I used other people study notes to restudy concepts to keep information fresh. If I didn’t have a lot of time to study, I would study a chunk of the study guide.
I went through each question, marked any questions that I skipped or was not 100% sure of, but worked as fast I could to finish the test. When I finished the test, I went back and looked over the questions that I was not quite sure 100% and tried to really try to understand what the question was trying to ask and answer it to the best of my abilities. Try not spend more than 1 minute on a problem. From what I read a lot of people have time issues on this test if they do not hit the case study with 1 ½ to 2 hrs remaining. I really emphasize this for this test. My first case study I got was a monster case study that took me close to an hour to finish. I was lucky the second case study was slightly easier. I also had trouble with the reference material loading, and they had to move me to another computer during my exam which was also very stressful. The case study requires you to read through a large program, floor plans and site plans. Something useful is that in the Case Studies, they give you ADA code which is useful for other ADA questions. Also there is a search bar function that is very useful to look through the case study documents. Figure out what the test is asking for you to find, and then I used the search bar to find the term or code section rather than read an entire document. There will be material you don’t use inside the code and zoning document. This is to test that you understand the code rather than just copy information.
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