Apr 11

ARE – Building Systems Vignette

The ARE Building Systems Vignette is a section of the ARE that comes after the multiple choice and can be typically underestimated by a lot of test takers. The Building Systems ARE exam requires a lot of preparation simply for the multiple-choice section because there are so many content areas that it covers.

Candidates often spend more time than usual to prepare for this test, and with good reason. Not to be overlooked however, is the building systems vignette. Like I’ve stressed with other tests, one major error on the vignette can result in a failing score for the entire exam, no matter how well you do on the multiple choice.

I certainly recommend finding a balance between preparing for the multiple-choice section and studying for the MEP vignette. A common error with most failing candidates is that they wait until the last day or 2 to finally look at the vignette. In my own opinion, this is not enough time to learn all of the tips and requirements needed to pass the vignette portion of the ARE, no matter which exam it is.

To help give you a head start on things, I want to provide a brief overview of the mechanical vignette that you will see with the building systems (BS) exam on the ARE.


The BS exam gives you 1 hour to design a ceiling and lighting plan given a specific program in the requirements. The nice thing about the mechanical vignette is that you will only need to provide one drawing, meaning that the vignette is not making you think in both plan and section like the PPP vignette has you do.


Fortunately, you will be given quite a bit of information to help you design a ceiling and lighting plan for the building systems vignette.

– Existing Floor Plan (typically just 1 story)
– Lighting Diagrams
– Type of ceilings and specific ceiling heights
– Number of diffusers/returns needed at each location

You can think of the requirements for this vignette as 2 different types: lighting and mechanical. When writing down the program information on your sketch paper, it may be a good idea to break up your notes into these categories.

Elements To Include:

For the ARE Building Systems Vignette, there are a lot of smaller elements that you need to remember to include on your drawing. Most of these items are easy to place, but it’s important to know the requirements so you don’t miss anything critical during the chaos of the exam.

Luckily for you, the NCARB vignette software can work as a checklist for you because it will list every component that you need to include on your drawing. Sometime when you’re double-checking your work at the end, it’s not a bad idea to use the dropdown menu as a checklist to make sure you’ve got everything.

Here are some other elements you want to make sure you include in the MEP vignette.

– Correct ceiling type in each room. *In some rooms, a ceiling may not be necessary so check the program
– Correct ceiling heights
– Correct lighting fixture type in each room
– Proper lighting spacing for each fixture type *You will need to use the lighting diagrams
– Correct number of diffusers and returns in each room
– Proper spacing for the mechanical components
– Proper use of flexible vs rigid ducts on the mechanical layout
– Fire damper at correct location

This may sound like a lot of requirements to include in 1 hour, but most of these components are small and easy to place. Like most of the ARE vignettes, you will want to take some time at the beginning to plan out your design before you get started. Since the NCARB software is very clunky, you won’t want to waste time making adjustments once you get started.

This vignette will certainly test your ability to follow rules and restrictions but it also gives you some freedom to design the solution in a way that you think works. Unlike the Programming vignette, this vignette can have multiple correct solutions depending on the candidates design.

*It’s essential to realize that this exam is NOT intended to test your ability as a designer. The most creative design has no bearing on whether you will pass or fail. It will solely grade you on if you followed all of the rules and created an efficient solution. I would recommend keeping your design simple and basic so you are able to follow all of the restrictions in the program.


Every candidate will have their own way of completing this vignette, but there are some general strategies that every candidate should consider before taking the ARE Building Systems Vignette.

Since this vignette has so many smaller required components, sticking to a general routine when you practice this vignette should help you stay organized so you don’t forget to include any components. Of course, you will want to read the program carefully on the day of the exam because some of the strategies we will go over may have changed.

  • Start off by reviewing the existing floor plan. You should look at the existing room sizes as well as the structural layout. The structural layout is important because it will affect how your mechanical ducts will lay. *Remember, rigid ducts can run parallel with the joists while flexible ducts are the only type can run perpendicular and through the joists.
  • Use the lighting diagrams to determine your fixture spacing. In the chart, check your given ceiling height with the number of footcandles needed at the proper height.
  • Using sketch tools, begin to lay out your lighting plan making sure that lights are generally centered in the room and spaced properly. It’s a good rule of thumb to keep any light fixture at least 2-3 feet away from any wall to avoid hot spots. *It’s recommended to use general sketch circles in each room to lay out the possible lighting before including the ceiling grid. Many candidates lay out the grid first and then feel constrained by the grid. The important thing here is to maintain proper and even spacing of the light fixtures.
  • Place the lights and ceiling grid once your sketch circles are properly placed. Carefully follow the program for which fixture type can be used in each room. Most of the time, you will have the choice between 2×2 or 2×4 fixtures in a room.
  • Do your best to avoid small slivers of ceiling tile along the edges in each room. It’s still more important to have the lighting spaced properly in the room, but do your best to avoid these wasted slivers.
  • Place your required diffusers in your ceiling tile after the lights have been placed. You will have more freedom with the diffusers than with the lights so make sure the lights are in first. *When you are laying out your diffusers, start to think about how they will connect back to a rigid duct using only 10 feet of flexible ducting.
  • Make sure your diffusers will provide that room with even air distribution. What this means is that if a room required 2 diffusers, don’t place them next to each other. Simply try you best to keep the symmetry of that room’s ceiling layout.
  • For each diffuser you provide, make sure you provide at least 1 return grille in the ceiling. Again, space the return grilles evenly and make sure they are at least 4 feet away from any supply diffuser.
  • Place in your rigid and flexible ducts as efficiently as possible. You should always have your duct layout in mind as you’re completing this vignette but you don’t need to place it until all of your diffusers are in place. Remember, rigid ducts run parallel to joists and only flexible ducts can run through them.
  • Keep your flexible duct length to 10 feet or less to the diffuser and try to avoid running through a light fixture
  • Place the fire dampers as required wherever the ductwork runs through a rated partition. This will usually only occur at the chase wall where the supply and return intersect the wall. This part is often forgotten about so make sure you have time to include these.

This may sound like a lot of work for just 1 hour, but it will go by much more smoothly if you take your time at the beginning to make a checklist for yourself. Since there are so many smaller components to include, checking these off the list may be the only way to keep track of everything.

It’s also a good idea to utilize the NCARB practice software for the BS vignette or any vignette for that matter. By using the software, you can get accustomed to placing the proper components and seeing how long it takes you to complete all of the necessary tasks.

Additional Tips & Practice Exams

For a full breakdown of the ARE Building Systems Vignette, please see the ARE Advisor eBook Series – BS Vignette that I’ve created to help you out. This ebook consists of step-by-step instructions, practice programs, and personal thoughts and advice to passing this section of the ARE.

Personally, I believe that many people fail exam divisions because they don’t spend enough time studying the ARE graphic vignettes. Granted, the multiple choice is just as difficult and time needs to be spent preparing for that section as well, but many people leave studying for the vignette until the last minute. These ebooks have been created to help better prepare you for the graphic vignette sections of the ARE.