The ARE Structural Systems Exam might be the exam that is most feared by most candidates. There are a number of reasons why people seem to fear this exam. Maybe it’s because most architects don’t deal specifically with the design and selection of structural systems on a daily basis (that’s what consultants are for, right?). Another reason why many people may fear the structures exam is because their structures classes in college were probably the most difficult classes that they had to take. Not to mention the second your structures classes in college were over, you probably forgot everything you learned that semester.
Either way, the structural systems exam is certainly a test that most candidates dread taking simply because they don’t feel that they know enough about the subject. I’m not going to lie and say that the SS exam is easy, but it’s certainly not as bad as people think it is.
For starters, if you think that NCARB is going to make you spend 20 minutes per question doing detailed calculations designing a beam, you’re wrong. There certainly are plenty of questions that require you to use your online calculator, but none of the questions will require you to get too in depth in terms of formulas. Remember, you are trying to become an architect, not a structural engineer, so you won’t be expected to memorize every detailed formula.
The most important thing to remember when preparing to take the structures exam is that you really need to focus on understanding the concept and less on memorizing equations. Many questions that appear on the ARE exam are similar in nature and will test your understanding of the concept, not the specific facts. Many candidates get hung with this and try to memorize too much information. I’m not saying you should completely ignore the equations and formulas in the study guides because it’s still important to know how certain factors are calculated. I would recommend reviewing the equations a few times but not worrying about memorizing them.
A good portion of the material on the structural systems exam overlaps with topics covered in the BDCS exam. Depending on your ARE exam order, you may have already studied some of these topics already. You should still take the time and review chapters from other exams that relate to the information in the structural study guides.
Let’s take a look at some of the important topics that typically appear on the ARE Structural Systems Exam:
- Structural Basics
There are some basic principles that you should review before getting too deep into your studying for this exam. One of the first principles that will be important to review is understanding how loading works on a building. Knowing the difference between dead loads and live loads is important as well as understanding how lateral loads are applied to a building. Most candidates should already be familiar with gravity loads from previous structures classes but lateral loads are a little more tricky.
Statics is another concept that is important to understand when it comes to studying for the structures exam. I’m sure a lot of you have taken whole courses in college relating to statics so don’t worry, you won’t have to review 4 months worth of materials. Reviewing how forces are applied on an object are important to review because some questions may appear that will require you to analyze a situation.
These three structural members are the basic elements of most structural systems so it’s important to understand not only what they do but also how to analyze them. Reviewing some of the basic structural principles first will certainly help you remember specifics about each member because you will get into issues such as loading a force on a beam or column and the reactive forces that work against it.
It’s probably a good idea to review shear/moment diagrams because they will often appear in ARE exam questions in a variety of ways. These types of diagrams are usually common when analyzing a beam or designing for equilibrium. Trusses use similar ideas but are a bit more complex. It’s still important to review trusses for the ARE but the chances of getting a long question relating to a truss is slim.
- Lateral Forces
This section surprises a lot of candidates because some ARE tests contain a majority of lateral force questions. Unfortunately, some of the study materials that are available don’t get into as much detail as needed for lateral forces, but there are plenty of supplemental readings that can help you prepare.
The 2 most common causes of lateral forces on a building are wind and earthquakes. If building aren’t designed properly, the effects of lateral forces can be much worse than errors made in gravity forces. One of the most common ways to prevent unwanted lateral forces on a building is by creating moment-resisting connections throughout the building. Be familiar with the various types of building systems that help to resist these forces including moment-resisting frames, x-bracing, and knee bracing.
Lateral forces still use some of the basic structural principles so I’ll stress it again, review the basic information first so you are familiar with these concepts before getting too far ahead in your studying.
- Structural Steel
Steel is one of the most common structural systems and for that reason, many questions related to steel construction appear on the structural ARE exam. Steel can come in a variety of shapes and sizes and is used in a number of different ways including beams, columns and connection pieces. The nice thing about using steel as a structural system is that it is ductile, meaning that it has some flexibility to it.
In addition to learning about the different types of steel systems, it’s also important to understand the factors that go in to designing steel members. Designing for elements such as shear, bending, and deflection are extremely important not only in steel construction, but also in wood and concrete systems. There are some basic formulas to help you understand some of the factors that go into designing structural systems such as moment of inertia and the slenderness ratio.
- Structural Concrete
Using concrete as a structural material is difficult to understand because there are many unknown factors of the material that change the properties. The addition of steel in structural concrete helps to strengthen members in tension, but often causes problems when it comes to doing easy calculations.
Since concrete members can be made as precast elements or poured-in-place, designing these members properly is even more important. There are various types of reinforcing that candidates should be familiar with. Fortunately, some of this information regarding concrete as a building material is covered on the BDCS exam so if you have taken that exam already, some of this should be a review for you.
- Structural Wood
Wood is very similar to steel as a structural system, but it can become tricky because the material is a bit unpredictable, unlike steel. Since wood can expand and contract more than steel does, there are many extra factors that need to be included in calculations for wood construction. In addition, since wood comes in so many different types and species, additional factors must be taken into account as well.
- Structural System Types
The selection of structural systems is an important part of the structural exam because it shows how a candidate can apply general concepts to real world situations. By understanding which systems are used in various situations, architects can help owners and contractors decide on structural systems early on in the project.
It’s important to know some basic information about the following structural systems: beams and girders, joists, flat slabs, waffle slabs, concrete core slab, concrete beams and columns, space frames, suspension systems and many more. Each structural system has implications based on both cost and function of the building. It’s important to review the general concepts related to each type.
- Structural Systems Vignette
For the SS exam, you will have 1 hour to complete a vignette once you are completed with the multiple-choice section. Fortunately, NCARB has made this vignette one of the easier ones in terms of the number of elements that you must include in the drawing.
For this vignette, you will be asked to design and layout a structural system for a given floor plan. You will not have to do any sizing of structural members, simply creating the layout. The key to this vignette is to come up with the most efficient solution that still satisfies all the program and code requirements that are given.
For a more detailed description of the ARE structural systems vignette, including a breakdown of what to include as well as common strategies for completing the vignettes, see here!
With so much content on the ARE Structural Systems Exam, it can be tricky to find the right materials to study. I would certainly recommend starting off fairly general in your studying by reading through a study guide by either PPI or Kaplan. I prefer to give the edge to PPI because they do a great job in terms of organizing their material in a way you can understand. Both Kaplan and PPI also offer supplemental practice exams that can help you prepare for the exam. Since this is such a long exam, it’s definitely a good idea to take a few practice exams to make sure you’re not spending too much time on calculations.
There are other materials available besides these study guides if you want to get into more detail regarding any of the issues above. I would certainly recommend reading more into anything related to lateral forces. Both study guides listed above briefly touch on lateral forces but many people come back from the ARE exam saying that they were not prepared enough in this area. One popular resource for lateral forces is a manual produced by FEMA (Federal Emergency Management Agency) called “Designing For Earthquakes: A Manual For Architects.” You are able to download various chapters online and use them to help you study.
In addition to the study guides and FEMA information, there are many other resources that people recommend. I would be careful with how many resources you use to help prepare because it can sometimes be overwhelming to study TOO much. I would recommend using the study guides as your main source of studying and then if you feel weak in any specific area, then go find some supplemental reading. Of course, this choice is yours and you should do what typically works best for you when studying.
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Just because the structural systems exam has the longest multiple-choice section of all 7 ARE exam divisions doesn’t mean you have to be scared to take it. Like I mentioned above, most questions will test your understanding of the general concepts and won’t require you to do detailed calculations. It’s still a good idea to review some of the basic formulas so that you understand what factors go in to various equations.
I won’t lie, this exam is still very tricky because there are so many topics that it covers, not to mention the length of the test alone. I would certainly recommend spending a lot of time preparing for this exam. Read through your general study material first so you have an idea of which areas you need to focus on. Once you feel better about all areas of the test, then go back and review the study guides again to make sure you remember everything.
Now start studying and good luck!