ARE – Building Systems Exam

The ARE Building Systems Exam covers a variety of topics that architects must be familiar with relating to the infrastructure of a building. Although it is typically not the responsibility of the architect to design these mechanical, electrical, and plumbing systems in a building, it’s essential that architects are familiar with how these building systems work so they can help coordinate them within the overall building.

Teams of engineers are usually hired from outside consulting firms or are sometimes hired in-house to design these systems within a building. As architects, we are required to coordinate these systems with each other as well as with other features throughout the building. Having a background knowledge with these systems is essential to running an efficient project that is properly coordinated.

The building systems exam is very similar to the structural systems exam in regards to the questions testing a candidate’s understanding of general concepts and not specific details about each system. Instead of trying to memorize different formulas, it’s more important to understand the concepts and theories behind each building system. This is where most ARE candidates usually struggle because it’s hard to find that balance when studying for the tests.

Let’s take a look at some of the important content areas on the ARE Building Systems Exam:

Exam Topics

  • Mechanical Systems

Understanding mechanical systems for the ARE exam is important because there are a variety of different HVAC types that can be used in a building. Knowing the difference between all-air and all-water systems is important as well as the different building conditions that may require one system over another.

As with most MEP systems, there are plenty of different ways to incorporate sustainable design into the design. Saving energy through various means and methods are also discussed in regards to HVAC systems. In addition to the various energy conservation ideas, it’s also important to understand the various sources of fuel. Because some of these resources are expensive and limited, learning where you can save money and still be efficient is important when designing a building.

For a better understanding of mechanical systems, you may want to read a few chapters in the MEEP book (see “Study Materials” section below).

  • Electrical Systems

Electricity is an important issue when it comes to designing building because it appears in a number of different ways throughout a building. Power to the building uses electricity as well as various signal and alarm systems in a building. The most obvious way that electricity is used in a building is through building lighting which is an area that architects are usually very concerned with.

It’s important to understand the various types of light sources as well as the different situations in a building where lighting can be applied. In addition to knowing the different lighting types, candidates should know how lighting is designed in a building from an engineering standpoint by learning how issues like luminance and candlepower affect a space.

Like most of the sections on the BS exam, it’s essential that you understand how these concepts are applied to real-life situations instead of getting hung up on the specific details of designing. Since engineers typically do most of the designing, architects need to be familiar with how these ideas are applied in a building.

  • Plumbing Systems

Similar to the mechanical and electrical systems, understanding different plumbing systems in a building is important when it comes to passing the MEP exam. Depending on the size of a building, different water supply systems can be used to bring both hot and cold water to the building. In addition to supply water systems, knowing how that water is then removed from the building is just as important in terms of sanitation. Just like mechanical systems, there are various types of energy conservation techniques that exist to help save make plumbing systems more efficient. Being familiar with some of these systems will help you on this exam because it seems like many questions focus on sustainable design throughout all exam divisions.

Another issue related to plumbing systems that commonly show up on the ARE is fire protection systems. There are a few main fire protection types that candidates should be familiar with as well as how these types are applied to the different plumbing systems discussed earlier.

  • Acoustics

On a smaller scale within a building, the issue of acoustical design is an important area that candidates should be familiar with. Sound transmission and control are very important when designing a variety of interior spaces. Depending on the function of the room, acoustical control is important so understanding the different properties of sound is crucial for candidates to understand.

Since acoustical consultants are not always part of a project, it’s even more essential for architects to understand these concepts because they are issues that they might have to design. There are a few basic equations for calculating sound and noise transmission that you should know for the exam as well.

  • Sustainable Design

Even though the ARE exam is far from the LEED exam, understanding sustainable design and how it can be applied in a building is very important. Since energy efficient design has been so popular in the last decade or so, architects are being asked to come up with new ways to incorporate these ideas into their designs.

All mechanical, electrical, and plumbing systems have opportunities to become more sustainable in their design so architects must be familiar with how this is done so they can help lead their consultants to design these systems. Along with some of these active ways to incorporate sustainable design there are also passive ways that architects can achieve a higher efficiency in a building. Issues such as controlling light, wind, and water are all simple ways to come up with more efficient solutions in your design and may appear on the ARE.

  • Building Systems Vignette

Like all ARE exams, the building systems exam contains one graphic vignette section after the multiple-choice section that requires candidates to design and develop a lighting and ceiling plan that satisfies a variety of requirements. You will be given an existing floor plan with various program and code requirements that deal with lighting, mechanical, and structural issues. Candidates will need to coordinate these systems and develop a simple lighting plan that satisfies all of these rules.

Even though this is a “design” vignette, it’s important to keep your solutions simple because NCARB is not looking for award winning solutions. Candidates that follow all rules and requirements given in the program will always pass even with the most basic solution.

For a more detailed description of the ARE building systems vignette, including a breakdown of what to include as well as common strategies for completing the vignettes, see here!


Study Materials:

There is a lot of information on the ARE Building Systems Exam that it can be very difficult to know where to start. Like I’ve said for other exams, I would recommend starting at reading through general study guides to get a general overview of the material and then go into additional reading where you feel it’s necessary. PPI and Kaplan are both publishers that make study guides for each ARE test. I tend to lean in favor of PPI for these study guides because they also include practice tests that explain each answer.

In addition to the study guides from PPI and Kaplan, there is one book that many people recommend reading, although it’s quite a large book. “Mechanical and Electrical Equipment for Buildings”, also known as “MEEB”, is a guide used by many MEP engineers because it goes into extensive detail on all issues relating to MEP. I certainly wouldn’t recommend reading this entire book because it gets too in depth for the ARE. I would suggest using MEEP to read further into concepts that you still don’t understand after reading the study guides. By using these ARE study guides as general outlines, you’re able to see which areas you still need to improve in. This will certainly help you avoid wasting precious hours reading into issues that you don’t need to know.

There are always additional readings that other ARE candidates recommend but the choice is certainly up to you. For a full list of additional resources, I’d recommend visiting the ARE Forum where you can collaborate with other test-takers regarding any issue you may encounter.


10% Off PPI Study Materials:

Since I personally used the PPI study guides for all 7 ARE exams, I’m a big supporter of the study materials that they sell. These study guides and practice tests go into fairly detailed descriptions of the material and I certainly recommend these materials for anyone preparing for the ARE.

With that said, ARE Advisor is pleased to announce a partnership with PPI (Professional Publications, Inc) where we will offer you 10% off on all PPI materials if you enter the ARE Advisor Promo Code. Whether it’s study guides, practice test, or online courses, PPI should have everything you need to pass the ARE.

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Final Thoughts:

Out of all 7 ARE exam divisions, the building systems exam is the most similar to the structural systems exam because it contains information that architects need to be familiar with, but don’t need to be experts. MEP concepts, like structural issues, are typically dealt with by an outside engineering consultant that will do most of the designing of the systems. As architects, we must be familiar enough with these systems so we can help coordinate everything that is going on in the building. Architects certainly don’t have to be experts in these areas, but a solid understanding of all concepts is crucial.

The same thinking applies to the ARE exam itself. Chances are you won’t be asked detailed questions that require you to do complex calculations. Instead, you will most likely be asked questions that relate to general concepts and how they are applied to the real world. Becoming familiar with these issues and how they affect different areas within a building is critical when it comes to studying for the MEP exam.

I wish everyone good luck!