Apr 17

ARE – Stair Design Vignette

The ARE Stair Design Vignette is one of three vignettes that candidates are required to complete for the BDCS exam. Similar the ramp/accessibility vignette, this vignette will touch on issues relating to code and exiting requirements. Although similar in nature to the ramp vignette, the stair design vignette incorporates a variety of new issues that candidates must be familiar with.

As part of the BDCS vignettes, the stair plan must be completed within the same time frame as the other 2 vignettes. There are 2 hours and 45 minutes to complete all 3 vignettes and candidates can choose to complete these sections in any order they wish. You are even allowed to partially complete a vignette and come back to it later on in that time frame.

Of course with that flexibility comes issues with time management. Trying to budget your time properly in this time frame can be very challenging to many candidates. By understanding what each vignette will require you to do before hand will help you better manage your time come exam day.


The stair design vignette will require candidates to design and draw a new stair that connects to multiple stories of an existing building. By connecting multiple levels in a fairly tight space, this vignette will test your understanding of three-dimensional space and how to best use it.

There is no one correct solution in this vignette so it is important for candidates to come up with the most efficient solution that still satisfies all requirements that are given. This is the part that most candidates have problems with because they try too hard to get creative with their solution and they end up making fatal errors. By keeping your solution simple and basic, you will pass as long as you follow the given rules.


For the stair vignette, you will be provided with the following information:

– Existing building plan (multiple floor plans)
– Building section
– Floor heights of all levels
– Occupant loads
– Program requirements
– Code requirements (different from the program requirements)

One of the most important pieces of information that is given to you in the code is the occupant loads of each floor. In order to figure out the width of the stair, you need to figure out the worst-case scenario out of all of the given information.

You will most likely receive 3 different stair width requirements and you need to pick the largest one as your stair width. These widths will most likely come from:

– Minimum Code Width
– Area of Refuge Width
– Occupant Load Width

To figure out the minimum width due to the occupant load, simply divide the occupant load of each floor by the number of exits provided in the program. This number will be the minimum width in inches that the program is requiring you to meet.

Once you get the occupant load width figured out, compare it to the code width and the area of refuge requirement to find the largest dimension. This should be what you follow in your design.

Elements To Include:

In your ARE Stair Design Vignette, you will need to include a number of different elements. In most situations, you will need to draw these elements on both floor plans because you will not be able to see what is happening on the lower floor plans.

– Stair that meets all code requirements
– Handrails/Guardrails
– Appropriate stair cut line on BOTH floor plans
– Area of Refuge as required by the code
– Appropriately sized landings
– Clear path to an exit

The trickiest tool in the entire stair design vignette is the stair cut tool. You have to decide where to cut your stair before you draw it in because there are multiple “stair cut” tools available. Where you cut your stair depends on your design but you need to make sure that you can see every element in one of the two floor plans.

When using the stair cut tool, remember to draw the same stair in both views. Many people will only draw a cut stair in one plan but if it’s not drawn in both, you could easily fail this exam. Practicing the stair cut tool is extremely important because it can save you a good amount of time on test day.


Coming up with a solid strategy for completing the stair vignette is very important when it comes to finishing this section quickly. Since the stair must connect between multiple floors in the building, it can be very tricky to run through multiple versions of your solution in the NCARB software.

Along those same lines, it’s very important that you consider your solution three-dimensionally because information is typically lost when flipping back and forth between floor plans. Make sure you understand what is happening in your solution so you can verify that you’re not violating any rules.

Here are some other general strategies for this vignette:

  • Determine the total number of risers that you will need to reach each level of the building. The way the NCARB software works is that you must enter in the number of risers and then you can adjust the run of the stair. This is tricky so planning out how many risers you need to reach each level will help you move quickly through your solution.
  • Figure out the minimum stair width first and make sure that it does not decrease in width as you exit. As mentioned earlier, there are 3 ways to determine the minimum stair width and you should pick the larger of the 3 numbers for your width. You may have to increase your width at the bottom depending on the occupant load of each floor but NEVER decrease the width.
  • Always verify that you have adequate headroom at each stair landing. Check the program for the requirement but always do the math to make sure you have clearance. A mistake like this could be fatal.
  • Verify that you’ve included an elevation at the top and bottom of every stair element. Similar to ramps, you need to include the elevations of both ends EVEN if you’re using the stair cut tool. In addition, make sure you enter a number for each landing so the NCARB software can read your solution properly.
  • Don’t forget to include your area of refuge according to the program and code requirements. This is not a physical element that you need to place in the software but you must show adequate space at your landing.
  • Remember to include guardrails/handrails at each stair and landing. Many people forget to include guardrails at landing where it is open to below but these are required here.

The stair design vignette one of the three ARE Building Design and Construction Vignettes so it will be important to focus on time management throughout your completion of these vignettes. The other two vignettes, the ramp/accessibility and roof plan, will be just as challenging as the stair design. These 3 vignettes will all require about the same amount of time and preparation to complete so you can’t rely on one of them being “easier” than the other. Depending on how familiar you are with the content on the exam, it may take you longer to complete a specific vignette over the other.

Roof Plan
The roof plan vignette requires you to create and design a roof based off of an existing floor plan that meets a number of programmatic requirements. You will encounter a variety of issues such as water removal, roof equipment placement, and allowing light inside the building. In addition to these requirements, you will need to follow programmatic requirements related to the slope of the roof.

For a similar breakdown of the ARE Roof Plan Vignette, see here.

The ramp/accessibility vignette requires you to design and draw a new ramp that connects multiple levels of a building. You will most likely be given an existing floor plan and will have to determine the minimum slope requirements for that ramp. In addition, careful attention will have to be given to ramp widths, door swings, and various elements that relate to accessibility.

For a similar breakdown of the ARE Ramp/Accessibility Vignette, see here.

Additional Tips & Practice Exams

For a full breakdown of the ARE Stair Design Vignette, please see the ARE Advisor eBook Series – BDCS 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.