Apr 12

ARE – Site Grading Vignette

The ARE Site Grading Vignette is one of the two site planning vignettes that make up the site planning and design exam. For this vignette, there are very specific tools that aren’t used on other ARE exam divisions or vignettes so it’s important that candidates understand how to use the software.

In addition to learning new software tools, this vignette will test your ability to understand a design problem and propose a solution.

Time is certainly a factor when it comes to completing this vignette because there are two vignettes that make up the site planning vignette. Managing your time between the two vignettes is critical because it is very easy to get caught up trying to solve one of them which would then leave very little time for the other. For most people, the site grading vignette takes much less time than the site design vignette, thus any time you can save on this one will help reduce the stress on the second vignette.

Here is a more detailed breakdown of the SPD vignette:


The site grading vignette requires candidates to modify existing site contour lines in order to properly drain water away from specific site elements. Water is an important factor in site design so NCARB is making sure that all candidates understand how site topography works as well as how well they can implement simple design strategies to solve any problems.

You will have 2 hours to complete both site planning vignettes but it is probably a good idea to target 30-45 minutes for the site grading vignette. The site design vignette will require much more of an effort on your part so reducing the time on the grading vignette will help you out.


For the site contours vignette, you will be given an existing site plan that includes the following information:

– Existing site elements (parking lot/driveways/buildings/etc)
– Existing contour lines (note the spacing, it changes per exam)
– Existing trees and other landscape
– Easement and site boundary lines
– Given requirements

Before starting this vignette, it’s recommended that you carefully analyze the site plan for these existing elements. It’s important to note the spacing of the contour lines so you can properly adjust the lines. In addition, there will also be given requirements that you will need to follow such as maintaining the proper slope and avoiding any site elements.

Elements To Include:

For the ARE Site Grading Vignette, there are not too many “new” elements you will to include on your solution, but depending on the program that you get, you may have to add a few items.

The main challenge in this vignette is modifying the existing contour lines. This is not a new element you will to place but it will involve moving the “nodes” on the contour lines.

In addition to moving contour lines around, you may need to add a new building or structure (depending on the program). Other than adding a building, there are no other elements you will need to add to this vignette, simply modifying what is given to you.


There are some basic strategies that candidates can take to help reduce the time they spend doing the site grading vignette. Since there are very few requirements and elements to place on the drawing, the faster you come up with a solution, the quicker you can move on to the more time-consuming vignette.

Of course, there are still some tricks to the grading vignette that make it difficult so candidates should be aware of what to look for in the program. There are still plenty of errors that can occur on this vignette so it’s important not to overlook it.

Here are some strategies you can take while completing this vignette:

  • As mentioned before, note the existing contour spacing so you know how much space you will need to maintain in order to achieve the proper slope given in the program.
  • Maintain the proper slope that was given in the program by spacing out the contour lines according to your calculations.
  • Understand the difference between a valley and a ridge. These are commonly drawn incorrectly on the vignette so learning how to draw each one is important. A ridge will point in the direction of the down-slope while a valley will point in the direction of the up-slope.
  • When modifying contour lines, be aware of changing them below the drip line of a tree. This is often a requirement given in the program so double-check the requirements.
  • Minimize the amount of site disturbance. Like most vignettes, an efficient solution will be important to only modify the contour lines that will be helpful to your solution. There is no need to completely re-grade the site if it’s not needed.
  • Understand the difference between creating a level building pad and diverting water around an existing site element. Typically the site grading vignette will include one of these requirements which are actually quite different. If the program states you need to provide a level building pad, it’s important that you run the same contour line around the entire building. On the contrary, diverting water around an existing element allows you to keep the existing contours under that element but you will need to adjust the contour and create swale that will divert the water away from that element.
  • Read the directions carefully for instructions about grading around existing paved areas. You may need to divert water to the sides of an existing road by creating a crown in the center that pushes water to swales adjacent to the road.

Even though this is just one of the ARE Site Planning Vignettes, it’s important that you understand how to complete this problem efficiently. The other vignette, site design, will require much more time to design and draw a solution. Since you have 2 hours to complete both vignettes in any order, time management will be critical. Take your time and practice these vignettes so you can be as efficient as you can on the grading vignette.

The site design vignette will ask you to design a site plan that includes a variety of elements and satisfies many requirements. With so many restrictions and code requirements for this vignette, it will take you a good amount of time to prepare a solution that will satisfy everything. Becoming familiar with all of these elements will be essential for you passing the SPD exam.

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

Additional Tips & Practice Exams

For a full breakdown of the ARE Site Grading 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.