Apr 29

ARE – Construction Documents Exam

The ARE Construction Documents Exam covers a variety of issues ranging from project management all the way through construction administration. This specific exam division is tricky for a lot of candidates because many test takers don’t have the real-world experience in a lot of these areas.

Many ARE candidates who have just finished IDP have had 3-5 years of experience working for an architecture firm. As many young architects know, the range of experience that you gain while working your first few years can certainly vary. The most common tasks for young architects involve working on construction drawings and detailing. Unfortunately, you don’t get a whole lot of experience in construction administration and project management until much further into your career.

Since a good portion of the construction documents exam covers areas that many candidates are not as familiar with, this test can be quite difficult without proper preparation. Fortunately, the topics that this exam covers can easily be broken down into categories to help organize your studying. Of course, you’ll want to spend more time in areas that you aren’t as familiar with.

In my experience taking the ARE, I spend a good chunk of time studying the AIA contracts and construction administration simply because I had very minimal experience in dealing with these issues. Before starting your studying for this exam, it may be a good idea to skim through the material to see what areas you feel confident in and which topics you need to get more in depth with. The more focused and efficient you can be in your studying, the better your chances of passing the CDS exam.

Let’s take a look at some of the general topics that the ARE Construction Documents Exam typically covers:

Exam Topics

  • Project/Firm Management

The topic of project management on the ARE exam covers a variety of concepts related to both running a project as well as running a firm. Different business types are discussed such as sole proprietorships, partnerships, LLC’s, and even corporations.

On a more micro scale, this section of the CDS exam gets in to topics relating to firm organization and office management. Not every firm is organized the same way so it’s important to understand the difference between a studio organization and a departmentalized organization. In addition to some of the general office management topics, this exam also touches on some of the legal boundaries that a firm may encounter such as insurance and copyright issues.

The other main issue in this section of the construction documents exam relates to project management. Depending on the size and type of the firm, management styles may be different but it’s important to understand some of the general ideas behind planning and running a project. Issues such as scheduling, coordinating meetings, and watching budgets are all touched on in this section.

  • AIA Contracts

Typically on this exam, questions related to the AIA contracts are the ones that give candidates the most trouble. One reason for this is the fact that many candidates simply don’t have the real-world experience dealing with the contracts that make up a project. In most mid or large sized firms, the project managers or even principals are the ones that deal with setting up various agreements between parties on a project. This is one area on the ARE exam that candidates really need to prepare for because most can’t rely on their experience in this subject.

There are so many different types of AIA contracts available, but fortunately for candidates, there are only a few major ones that you should know in order to pass the ARE. Most ARE study guides don’t get in to too much detail regarding the contracts, but you can find “draft” versions online through AIA that provides you with the entire set of contracts.

The major AIA contracts for ARE that you need to understand are the “General Conditions”, “Owner/Architect Agreement”, and the “Owner/Contractor Agreement”. These are some of the major contracts that are uses on most projects so it’s important to become familiar with what they cover. Of course, it’s not worth your time to study these word for word. Simply understanding the general concepts and how they apply to a project are the most important things to take away from these contracts.

In addition to the specific AIA contracts that architects deal with, it’s also important to understand the different project delivery methods that are typically used on projects. Project delivery refers to the contractual relationships between parties on a project and the different ways projects can be run. Questions related to project delivery can certainly show up on the ARE so it’s definitely important to know the different types and when they are typically used.

Additional AIA Contracts Topics:

  1. Understanding Project Delivery Methods On The ARE
  2. Using The AIA Contract Documents To Study For The ARE


  • Specifications

In every project, specifications play an important role as another item that makes up the contract documents. Usually referred to as the project manual, this set of documents will typically include bidding requirements, contracts, general conditions, and of course the specifications.

Understanding specifications on the ARE is important because there are various types of specs that can be used on a project. In addition to the spec types, it’s important for candidates to understand exactly how the specs are organized and used throughout the project. Fortunately for most candidates, you should be somewhat familiar with using specs because they are something that most young interns have to deal with when completing contract documents.

  • Construction Administration

Even though construction administration is such a general concept, many issues relating to it will show up on the construction documents exam. This section of the ARE covers issues relating to both fieldwork as well as project management and closeout procedures.

When most people think of construction administration on the ARE, they think of the actual visits to the site. Although this is a big part of CA, it’s not everything so it’s important to understand exactly what goes in to construction administration.

In addition to the field visits that architects must make, candidates must be familiar with the legal part of administration such as change orders, claims, and anything affecting the cost and budget of the project. Although many of these issues come up during your field visits, it’s essential that candidates understand some of the general CA procedures.

  • Construction Drawings

The one part of the ARE that most candidates feel comfortable with relates to issues of construction drawings. Most firms allow intern architects the chance to work on construction documents/drawings right away so most you should be very familiar with how a set of drawings is put together.

Since the organization of the construction drawings varies from firm to firm, questions relating to this material can’t get very detailed. Many questions that come up in the construction drawings section of the ARE may relate to coordination or responsibility. Since architects are in charge of both their drawings and their consultant’s drawings, issues dealing with consultants may appear on the ARE as well.

  • Bidding and Negotiation

Studying bidding and negotiation for the ARE is essential because there are many questions that can show up that relate to proper bidding procedure as well as some of the bidding documents. Knowing some of the general procedures such as: addenda, advertising, substitutions, bid openings, and awarding the bids are all topics that are touched on in this section.

Candidates are also expected to be familiar with some of the bidding documents that are usually found in the project manual. Some of these items include: advertisements, bid forms, and bonds. Again, some of these topics may be unfamiliar to most ARE candidates so take your time on sections that aren’t familiar with to review these concepts.

  • Construction Documents Vignette

The CDS vignette will require you to draw a building section from a given set of floor plans. In this building section, candidates must pay careful attention to ceiling heights, structural joist depths, and mechanical system depths in order to create an efficient solution that satisfies all requirements.

This specific vignette will test your ability to understand how a building is put together as well as an understanding of how different trades are coordinated. There is very minimal design work that you will need to do in this vignette as most of the elements you will draw will come from the given floor plan.

Like most vignettes, it will be important for you to practice using the NCARB software because some of these elements are tricky to place and modify.

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

Study Materials:

There are plenty of study materials available for the ARE Construction Documents Exam. PPI and Kaplan both offer study guides that cover most of the sections listed above but in greater detail. In addition to the study guides, reading through some the AIA contracts may be beneficial to you, especially if you are not as familiar with the legal process in architecture.

When I was preparing for the CDS exam, I used the PPI study guides written by David Ballast as my primary resource. These study guides also come with 2 different practice tests that I found helpful as well.

I also read through a few of the primary AIA contracts but those can take up a lot of time. Some of the contracts get a little too detailed and confusing so it’s important that you try and understand the general concepts of the contracts.

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.

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Final Thoughts:

Out of all 7 of the ARE exam divisions, the construction documents exam may be the most diverse in terms of what candidates have previous experience in. Like I mentioned before, people have varied experience with some of these concepts based on their work experience. Since there is such a variety of topics on this exam, it’s important that you identify which areas of the exam you feel the least comfortable with.

I certainly recommend taking a brief overview of the content that this exam covers before diving in too deep to your studying. Take some time and come up with a plan of attack for studying beforehand and you will definitely be more efficient while you prepare.

Good luck everyone!