ARE Prep: Building Systems

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ARE 4.0 is now officially behind me! In early May, I decided to schedule my last three remaining exams for the final week of June, just before the blackout. I knew it would be a huge risk and an equally daunting time of studying, but I had the motivation to finish and be completely done. I began studying May 11 for Building Systems, Structural Systems and Building Design and Construction Systems. I am blessed to say that I have passed all three exams! The next several articles will highlight the methods and resources I used to get through the grueling 6 weeks of study in which I covered over 100 hours of material. Be sure to read the other ARE Prep articles for more tips, tricks and resources for each exam.

As a reminder, ARE candidates are not allowed to share specific exam content, so please don’t ask. These are general overviews of what worked for me in terms of how to prepare.

photo credit: Bill Selak via photopin cc

photo credit: Bill Selak via photopin cc

Materials I used for Building Systems

The Building Systems exam consists of 95 multiple choice questions and one graphic vignette: mechanical and electrical plan.

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 vignette twice, using the NCARB example both times, but changing the type of lighting I used. I posted solutions to the ARE Forum for comment and feedback.

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

NCARB Exam Guide

Ballast review manual

Ballast sample problems

Gang Chen mock exams

The Amber Book – a very affordable and useful resource that is easy to understand and quite useful. Highly recommended.

PREPARE Building Systems online video course – The instructor for the building systems course was very dry and monotone and the format was to read power point style slides and supplement with on-screen hand drawn commentary for some slides. I found this to be a waste of time and money, as the format was something one could likely read more quickly on their own, and the presenter made it difficult to keep focused. I only watched a few hours of videos before ditching this altogether. Skip this one.

PREPARE – EQuALS online question system – This resource was pretty good. It gives you a good amount of practice questions that you answer through their online system which is set up like a real exam. You can sort and filter your test in multiple ways (correct/incorrect answers, unanswered, by topic, etc.). Overall I recommend doing as many practice problems as possible, but I can’t say for sure if these particular questions prepared me for the exam. It definitely helped me get in the right mindset, but the content seemed heavily biased towards very technical and mathematical questions. For the price of $60, it is worth a try if you want more practice.

MEEB. I had an old edition that I kept from school, but didn’t end up even touching the book. I found some online resources were sufficient in explaining specific charts or graphs and the sheer volume of material in MEEB is intimidating. You may consider purchasing the digital version which will be much easier to take with you (this book is a good 3-4″ thick). Others found this resource very useful, and if I had more time I would likely have used it. You’ll also find a link below to download the free Kindle reading app, should you choose to go the ebook route.

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

Be sure to check out links to all of the online and free study materials I’ve used for ALL exams here.

Timeline for studying

I studied for building systems, structural systems and building design and construction systems cumulatively for 6 weeks. I spent a dedicated two weeks on building systems material and felt very uneasy going into my exam. Given that I passed, it is very doable, but I would recommend at least 4 weeks if the material is unfamiliar to you, and to allow time for concepts to really sink in and leave room for more review.

General Content Focus

Building Systems focused on just that: building systems. While some exams have overlap with other content areas, I felt this one was true to the exam’s main topic. The difficulty I found was that although I was familiar with many concepts and content areas within building systems, the specificity and strangeness of the questions left me scratching my head more than once. Many of the questions felt completely foreign to me, even though I could easily identify answers to the question if they had asked it differently or changed one or two words. I found this exam to be the most difficult for me, as well as the most difficult to explain to others on how to approach studying for it. It didn’t feel like application of concepts. It didn’t feel familiar at all. It related to building systems, but in ways I had never heard of or seen before.

General Tips and Tricks

The vignette was straight forward and simple. Know that you will have conditions that will be either under or over lit. Decide before you start the vignette which way to err, whether that means you will over or under light the spaces or whether you will provide an extra diffuser and return grille if you end up with a space that is 1-2 square feet over an area requirement. This will save you time and give you peace of mind going in. Practice lighting with both 2×4’s and 2×2’s.

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.


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Consider using the free Kindle to read your ebooks – I used this for the MEEB book (because who wants to carry that thing around?). The upside is you can have ALL of your study books with you wherever you go. The downside is you can’t re-sell the books when you are finished. Either way, the app is Free!

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