ARE Prep: Site Planning and Design

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It’s official: I’m 3 down, 1 pending results and only 3 exams left to take. I received my pass letter last week for SPD (Site planning and design). Following the same format as the previous ARE Prep articles, I’ll jump right in. Be sure to read the other ARE Prep articles for more tips, tricks and resources.

As a reminder, ARE candidates are not allowed to share specific exam content, so please don’t ask.

photo credit: francisco_osorio via photopin cc

photo credit: francisco_osorio via photopin cc

 Materials I used for Site Planning and Design

The Site Planning and Design (SPD) exam consists of 65 multiple choice questions and two graphic vignettes: site grading and site design.

For the vignettes, I practiced with the NCARB software which you can find on their website here. Also available through the link is an exam guide for each section. I read through this before beginning my studies to get a good understanding of the type of content that would be covered and browsed the sample questions to gauge my knowledge on the topic and establish a baseline for my study timeline. I practiced the grading vignette about two times, and the site design about 3, focusing mostly on the parking. I uploaded solutions of both vignettes to the ARE Forum for comment.

The key to the grading vignette is to understand crowns, swales and the way water will flow down a hill. Mnemonics helps here to remember that “Crowns point down”, meaning that if you see a jog in the contour line pointing in the down hill direction, it is a crown. I found it helpful to sketch out crowns and swales in an isometric view to understand how dirt would be built up or dug out and visualize water flowing in or around it. The key to the site design vignette is to learn this parking lot method. It is the best way to draw the parking lots, so watch the videos and practice. Both of these vignettes required practice in order to become comfortable with the tools to where I could focus on meeting program requirements rather than how to make the tool work for me.

For the multiple choice, I used the following materials and resources:

NCARB Exam Guide

Ballast Review Manual (comprehensive study book on all ARE divisions)

Ballast sample problems and practice exams

Gang Chen’s Mock Exam book

NALSA iphone flashcards during lunch breaks

Random browsing through Forum posts from those who passed and failed the exam

Be sure to check out all of the study materials I’ve used or plan to use for ALL exams here.

Timeline for studying

I began studying for site planning and design concurrently with programming planning and practice. Cumulatively, I spent about 3 weeks preparing for site planning and design (going out of the country for business travel forced my testing dates to change around and extended my study time, though it was not necessary). This exam has the second highest pass rate after Schematic Design, so 3-4 weeks should be plenty for most people.

General Content Focus

Site planning and design felt very straightforward and very simple. The questions were on par with the NCARB practice exam and I did not feel that anything was too far left field. Know basic definitions and common terms and focus mainly on concepts. Construction Documents and Services questions will likely pop up through all tests, so be sure to do a once-over review of the contracts. Understand soil types and foundation types in broad conceptual ways: why is clay bad for foundations? What type of foundation would help counter the negatives of clay soils?

General Tips and Tricks

The vignettes felt straightforward and very similar to the NCARB practice examples. Be sure to spend time practicing so you are comfortable with the tools! Post your results on the forum since there are many programmatic elements that can easily be overlooked. A second set of eyes will help train you on what to look for. The key to the vignettes is practice.

For the multiple choice questions, think about broad concepts and how they apply to the question at hand.

Remember: More concepts, less facts.

I’ve created a spread sheet with links to all of the materials I’ve found and you can find it here. There is a tab for each division and items in bold are things I felt were especially helpful. Don’t forget you can also check out my Amazon store for direct links to study books if you need to purchase them. I find that the Ballast and Chen books in combination with the NCARB practice exam are enough for me to feel confident in the material.

Tune in next time for a review of Programming Planning and Practice.



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  • James

    Who’s voice was over those videos – http://ironwarrior.org/ARE/Site_Planning/SP%20Videos/.
    Good god they sound like they’re dying, so monotone.

  • Jeddy

    Site planning: Don’t forget the 100 year flood plain.
    Design: miss a programmed space and you fail!

  • mo

    i keep seeing people talk about alternative vignettes to practice but i can’t seem to find how to access them. are they built into the NCARB software download or do you have to get them somewhere else? thanks!

    • Alternate files are typically provided by users on the forums. On the old forum, there was an FTP site to download alternates that users created for practice. There was also instructions for how to load them – you essentially have to trick your machine into thinking the alternate is the original file by replacing the name (save the original to another location and then rename your alternate to the original’s name). I’d browse around on the new forum: http://arecoach.com/coachforum/

    • mo

      Update to my previous post for those wondering the same thing. Someone shared with me this site: http://arehelp.webs.com/spd with downloads for the alternates as well as some really useful tips.

  • Brinn,

    Thanks for sharing this, I think the tips for the vingettes will come in handy when I take the exam in a couple of weeks.

    I feel somewhat comfortable with the vignettes but I’m been somewhat worried about the multiple choice. I’ve seen a lot of people over at the AreCoach forums say that only 10-15% of what they studied in Kaplan and Ballast was on the exams. I’ve been broadening my exam prep because of that and have been compiling a free SPD quiz from what I’ve been learning.

    The quiz randomly pulls 25 questions from a pool of nearly 200 questions. Some people might find it useful as a study tool in it’s own right. At the least, it certainly helps gauge where you’re at. http://designerhacks.com/spd/

  • Kevin Young

    I would suggest to must read these books to have vast knowledge about land planning or urban planning : The City in History: Its Origins, Its Transformations and Its Prospects,
    Local Planning: Contemporary Principles and Practice, Civilizing American Cities: Writings on City Landscapes, it would definitely help you…