Apr 12

ARE – Site Design Vignette

The ARE Site Design Vignette is one of the two vignettes that make up the site planning and design ARE exam. The other vignette in this exam division focuses on site grading and how to manipulate topography to drain water properly.

The site design vignette on the other hand combines multiple concepts of site planning and integrates it into one vignette. This vignette is certainly more challenging and time-consuming than the site grading vignette so it’s important to leave yourself enough time to complete this section. Time management will be critical because you will have a set of time to complete BOTH vignettes instead of a certain amount of time for each one.

Let’s take a closer look at what you need to know for the SPD vignette.


For the site design vignette, you will be asked to design a site plan that includes a variety of given elements. In addition to placing these elements on the site plan, you will be given a variety of rules and restrictions that will force coordinate your design elements with the rules.

This vignette is very complicated simply because of the different site planning issues that it covers. This vignette will touch on various issues including: pedestrian circulation/vehicular traffic and circulation/light/sound/zoning/etc. Trying to balance all of these issues into one comprehensive plan is the main challenge of this vignette.

As mentioned before, you will have 2 hours to complete BOTH this vignette but also the site grading vignette. You can spend as much time as needed on either vignette as long as it’s within that 2-hour window. Since the design vignette is much more complex, it’s recommended that you leave as much time as you can to complete this section.


For this vignette, you will be provided with a fairly decent amount of information to help you solve the problem. For the site planning vignette, you will be given an existing site plan with the following information typically included:

– Property lines
– Building setback lines
– Existing structures
– Existing trees
– Adjacent streets

In addition to the existing site plan, you will also be provided with a fairly detailed program that will specify the restrictions and rules that you need to follow in your solution. The program will typically touch on issues such as site views/circulation requirements/parking capacities/etc.

Since the program is so detailed and time is a factor, you may want to utilize your sketch paper by taking notes of the various program requirements. In the NCARB software, precious time would be wasted if you had to keep flipping back and forth between the program and your drawing.

Elements To Include:

On the ARE Site Design Vignette, there are quite a few elements that you will need to place in your final solution. A lot of these elements are specific to the vignette and you probably haven’t seen in other ARE exam divisions so it’s important to practice with the software before taking the exam.

Since there is more of a focus on design on this particular vignette, you will most likely go through a few modifications as you start your drawing. Some of these elements are easy to move while some require more time to adjust and move around. The more planning you can do on your sketch paper before diving into the program, the less time you’ll waste actually drawing.

The common elements that you’ll most likely need to include on this design vignette are:

– 2-3 new programmed buildings
– Plaza/Common space connecting the buildings
– Parking (including handicap accessible spaces)
– Parking lot circulation route
– Access drive
– Sidewalk connecting to the existing circulation
– New trees

The new buildings you are asked to include will come as “blocks” in the NCARB software so you will not be able to adjust their shape. You can rotate them and move them anywhere on the site plan.

Elements such as circulation and the common space are drawn as areas where you can manipulate them into any shape you wish by moving their nodes. When it comes to placing the parking, you will need to connect your circulation route with the given parking spaces elements. The program will naturally connect these two elements but it certainly takes some getting used to if you want to modify their shape after they are connected.


To complete this vignette properly, there are some simple strategies that you should be aware of that will help you save time and avoid making any costly mistakes.

Before moving on, it’s important to remember that even though this is a design vignette, NCARB is not looking for award-winning designs. It is more important to have a simple and efficient solution rather than a fancy one. The key to having an efficient design solution on this vignette is to minimize the site disturbance. Keeping all site elements as closely spaced together as possible (within the program requirements) will be the most efficient.

Try to keep this general strategy in mind when reading some of the other tips below.

  • After reading the program, place all design elements into the existing site plan according to the program. This will help to give you a sense of scale before you start designing your site plan.
  • Pay close attention to adjacency rules and site view restrictions. These are often missed when reading the program and can sometimes affect the entire layout of the site plan. It might not be a bad idea to start with these rules and see where that takes you.
  • Note how many trees the program will allow you to remove. This may not seem like a big restriction, but the trees can disappear fast once you start to place your vehicular circulation. To check to see if a tree is being counted as removed, hit the “check” icon and the removed trees will become red.
  • Use trees properly to block wind, views, and sun. Many candidates use the wrong type of tree when trying to either block views, wind, and sun according to the program. Remember, conifer trees can be used to block views and wind while deciduous trees should be used to block the sun and create shade. You will most likely need to include both types of trees on you solution.
  • Make sure there is pedestrian access to the handicap parking spots. This is a common mistake by a lot of candidates because it’s briefly mentioned in the program. Double check that it is included in your program as well.
  • Connect the parking lot with the existing street properly. Avoid using dead-end parking lots by creating a drive aisle around your parking. Double-loaded parking typically is the most efficient use of the space but see what works best for your solution.
  • Avoid curb cuts as much as possible. Of course you will need to make at least one to allow vehicles to enter the site.
  • Be as efficient as possible with creating parking and site circulation. NCARB values the green space on the site plan so try to save as much of it as you can by creating an efficient solution.
  • As always, read the program carefully! There is a lot of useful information in there that you NEED to follow in order to pass. Read through it a few times and make sure you understand everything it is asking of you. If there is time at the end, double check your solution with the program in case you missed something.

This is just one of the two ARE Site Planning Vignettes, so it is important to understand how much time you have to complete both vignettes. The other vignette, site grading, does not have too many elements to place or even that many requirements to follow. Since you have 2 hours to complete both of these vignettes, it’s very easy to lose track of time focusing on one of them, thus not have time to complete them both. Take your time and practice these vignettes so you can be as efficient as you can on the grading vignette.

The site grading vignette will ask you to modify an existing site topography plan to divert water away from existing structures. Depending on the program, you may either create a level pad for a building or create swales that divert water away from a structure. Modifying the existing contour lines takes some getting used to so practicing with the software is very important to your success on this vignette.

For a similar breakdown of the ARE Site Grading Vignette, see here.

Additional Tips & Practice Exams

For a full breakdown of the ARE Site Design Vignette, please see the ARE Advisor eBook Series – SPD Vignettes 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.