Apr 12

ARE – Structural Systems Vignette

The ARE Structural Systems Vignette is often forgotten about due to the fact that the multiple-choice section of the Structural Systems exam is arguably the most difficult of the 7 ARE exams. The multiple choice section will require a lot of time and preparation because of the broad range of topics that are included on the test.

Since the multiple-choice section is the primary focus of this particular ARE exam division, the structural systems vignette is almost always overlooked and that really shouldn’t be the case. Granted, the requirements on the structures vignette are not as demanding as other exam divisions, but going in to the vignette unprepared could possibly result in a failed exam score.

If a candidate fails the vignette portion of the ARE, the overall test result will also be a fail no matter how well they do on the multiple choice section. This is why balancing your study between multiple-choice and the vignettes are so important.

Let’s take a look at the key points to the structural systems vignette and some of the common strategies people use to pass this section of the exam.


The SS vignette allows you 1 hour to complete the structural framing for a roof or floor plan using the materials listed in the program. Even though the multiple-choice section of the structural systems exam includes many calculations, the vignette will not require you to calculate any loads on the building.

Since there is only 1 hour to complete this vignette, including calculations would be too much for candidates and the purpose of this vignette is to show that candidates understand basic structural principles and can apply them to a building


With most of the ARE vignette, a certain amount of given information is provided in the problem statement and the given program requirements. Here is a list of just some of the information that you’re likely to see on the vignette:

– Existing Floor Plan Background (may be multiple levels)
– Material type of the structural system
– Loading capacity and span of the roof deck
– Ceiling heights of interior spaces

Since there aren’t too many items given to you in the program, a lot of your solution will depend on your ability to design an efficient solution. NCARB is not grading you on your design capabilities, but they are looking at how efficient a solution is.

Don’t place excess structure where it is not needed and it’s important not to over-design any portion of this vignette.

Elements To Include:

For the ARE Structural Systems Vignette, there are a few main elements that need to be included on every vignette. These elements are all listed in the given program and some include special requirements so it’s important to read through the program carefully. With 1 hour to finish this vignette, you have plenty of time to read through the directions and plan out your solution before actually drawing it.

– Columns
– Bearing Walls
– Joists
– Beams
– Roof Decking

These are basically the only elements that you need to include on the structures vignette. It may not seem like a lot compared to other ARE exam divisions, but the difficulty in this vignette is coming up with the most efficient solution.

All of the elements that candidates need to include on the vignette drawing can be found under the “draw” icon in the NCARB software. You will need to pick the proper joist and decking direction before drawing it in place because the software does not allow you to rotate the span once it is placed on the sheet.


Since this vignette does not seem to have as many elements to include as other exams, picking the right strategy is very important when it comes to passing the ARE Structural Systems Vignette. As I mentioned before, taking the time write down all rules and requirements before starting your solution can help prevent costly mistakes on your vignette.

In addition to writing down all of the rules, coming up with a schematic plan of attack would also be beneficial because you have plenty of time to work on this vignette. Let’s take a look at some of the additional strategies that you can use to help pass the ARE.

  • Note the maximum span of the roof deck because this will be the new spacing for your roof joists
  • Note the ceiling height of the larger space and the location of the clerestory window so you can understand in plan what the building will look like. This isn’t true for all solutions, but most vignettes will have a taller space that needs to accommodate a clerestory window. *Note, the clerestory window usually requires a specific structural system so be sure to read the program carefully
  • Try to include both bearing walls and columns in your solution for maximum efficiency. It may be possible to pass the vignette only using one type of structural system, but the most efficient solutions include both types.
  • Always try to span your joists in the smaller direction. This will help to increase the efficiency of your solution
  • Make sure all columns or bearing walls at the upper level are supported from below. A common mistake by many test takers is that they treat each floor level independently. It’s important to think of the building as a whole and realize that elements above must be supported by something below.
  • It’s often recommended to work your solution from the top to the bottom. This will help to ensure that you don’t forget to support any members. You can also use the “layers” tool in the NCARB software to help you line everything up.
  • Remember to include lintels (beams) over all openings that occur in bearing walls
  • Try to reduce the span of your beams and joists as best you can. As a general rule of thumb, try to keep the length of your beams to under 40’ and the length of your joists under 30’.

There are always additional tips and tricks that you’ll find when practicing for the structures vignette with the NCARB practice software. It’s highly recommended that you take the time to practice with the actual software so that you don’t waste too much time trying to learn the tools.

The software the NCARB uses is very hard to get used to and is not very similar to other drafting programs that most candidates are used to. To help save yourself time on test day, it’s probably a good idea to do a few test runs through the software ahead of time.

Additional Tips & Practice Exams

For a full breakdown of the ARE Structural Systems Vignette, please see the ARE Advisor eBook Series – SS 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.