5 Important Tips For the Site Zoning Vignette – PPP

The Programming, Planning and Practice exam, part of Architect Registration Exam has only one vignette to solve – the Site Zoning vignette.  There is one key thing to remember when going in to this exam… this vignette has only ONE correct solution, so pay attention!

5 tips zoning

In the Site Zoning Vignette, you will be required to develop a diagram showing the zoning requirements as well as provide a section through the entire site.

This top 5 list for the Site Zoning vignette will help keep you focused as you prepare for the Programming, Planning and Practice division. Be sure to practice a lot with the NCARB software. You’ll want to be completely familiar with the software tools prior to taking the exam.

5 Important Tips For the Site Zoning Vignette

1.  Follow the program.  Don’t get caught up trying to create a design or make the site pretty.  This vignette only has one correct answer so follow the directions carefully to be successful.

2.  Use sketch circles to maintain setbacks.  Easements, side and rear yards as well as any areas that need to be protected can easily be maintained using sketch circles to stay clear of the setback.

3.  Maximize the area for both site improvements and the buildable area.  These areas should not cross over setbacks however they should get as close to them as allowed by the program in order to show the total area where site improvements and built improvements are allowed.

4.  Use sketch circles to mark the grade points on the section.  Trace the contour points that cross the section cut line down to the section grid and mark the elevation using small sketch circles.  You can then connect these circles using the Grade Plane tool to accurately set the grade plane.

5.  Follow the maximum building envelope instructions carefully.  There will be specific requirements for the overall maximum building height for both lots as well individual requirements for each lot.  Carefully sketch out these height requirements using sketch lines then trace over them using the Building Envelope tool.

Remember, practice makes perfect, and since there is only one correct answer, perfection is essential here!  Stay alert and be careful to follow all program requirements precisely.

The light at the end of the tunnel is getting closer, keep going and you’ll be there before you know it!

By |2019-01-21T18:39:34+00:00January 5th, 2015|Categories: Programming, Planning, & Practice|32 Comments

About the Author:

David Doucette
David Doucette, AIA, NCARB, LEED AP is founder of Architect Exam Prep and CSEprep.com and has been helping candidates successfully prepare for and pass the California Supplemental Exam (CSE) for the last four years. He also hosts a podcast dedicated to preparing for the California Supplemental Exam as well as CSE Video Tips at CSEprep.com.


  1. Avatar
    Ryan January 6, 2015 at 5:25 am

    I did not pass this vignette. Going in I was confident in the vignette more than the multiple choice but the results were reversed. I easily passed the multiple choice and failed the vignette. I am very frustrated because I don’t know, and can never know, what I did wrong and what to work on to improve. I triple checked everything. And then I triple checked everything again. I finished 100% certain I had passed. Now I don’t know how to study.

    The only thing I can think of involves the set back on the water feature. Since every source constantly reiterates that you are not supposed to draw the section as if it were an elevation from the street and the water feature cuts into the site, if you did draw an elevation the area of the building profile in section would be much ‘greater’ than if you had followed directions. Therefore, it would be an easy way to grade that parameter, by measuring the area of the resulting shape. If it were over a certain area you automatically fail. However, the vertical building section line adjacent to the water set back is determined by the ‘buildable area’ shape on the site plan, and the buildable area shape is limited because of the 1′ x 1′ snap grid, which makes you have to decided at each point where to place a node in order to maximize area without going over. BUT there should be tolerances for such things, so they say.

    I feel frustrated like the only thing I can do is take the exam over and over again until I accidentally produce a correct profile from arbitrarily correct set of nodes, while I could demonstrate competence in this are by any other means in my sleep, I do this all the time at work.

    How can I study? What should I focus on?

  2. Avatar
    Aubrey January 6, 2015 at 9:32 pm

    Hi Ryan,

    I totally understand your frustration and am sorry to hear about your results. This vignette is very tricky since there is only one correct answer and everything is so interconnected (the grade plane, the building profile and height) if you make one small mistake in one area, it can easily snowball into something much bigger. As you mentioned, the biggest mistake some people have made with this vignette is drawing the section as an elevation, so it is very important to interpret the grade points at the section cut line accurately. If you are off on your grade plane, it will throw off your building height as well.

    What I found to be useful while studying for this exam was to create a notechart based on the program requirements to keep me organized and make sure I didn’t forget anything (if you have our Vignette Study Guide, there is a sample chart in there, but feel free to make your own to suit your needs as well). Practice is key for this exam, and accuracy is crucial. I found the notechart was the most helpful way for me to keep on track with the program. I’d use the scratch paper you are given at the testing center and spend a few minutes at the beginning of the vignette to organize the program information in a way that would make sure I didn’t forget any important dimensions or site restrictions.

    As for where to go from here, I would suggest that you practice with several different programs to get familiar with the requirements for this vignette as well as the clunky features of the software. One great resource is coach’s forum where you could post screenshots of your solutions and get feedback from others on what areas you are doing well in and where you need improvement. I found this invaluable as a study aid… plus you can critique solutions from others as well and become familiar with the common mistakes made on this vignette. Repetition is key to getting to know this vignette program as well as the software itself.

    Good luck and don’t give up!!



  3. Avatar
    Salim Omar January 23, 2015 at 8:09 pm

    Hi , I have a question. I thought I had a perfect drawing as well. The test results tell me I don’t. The one thing that I am not sure is . When you mark your street angle restriction. And I am not talking about the exam. This is general question. The practice drawing tells you to start it at the bench elevation. I would think that it always is bench elevation of property line. Unless specified different. I will welcome comments. Another comment is . I have use Autocad for 22 years. Why do we have to use a Kinder Garden level Cad. It’s like trying to do modern surgery with Stone Age instruments. ????

  4. Avatar
    Aubrey January 28, 2015 at 9:59 pm

    Hello Salim,
    Defining the building envelope is one of the most confusing portions of this vignette. NCARB doesn’t do a very good job describing how it needs to be drawn and you have to pay close attention to the plan to make sure you know where the benchmark is located. In general, it will likely be on the property line where the section cut line and property line meet. It will be indicated on the plan with a symbol marked “benchmark”. The building envelope requirement may be set some distance above the benchmark, which would mean you would set the angled line at that height above the benchmark. This line may also pass through both lots depending on the program.

    As for the vignette software, it is frustrating that it is so archaic and inaccurate and not being familiar with it can possibly set you back, or at least cause delays during the exam. My understanding is that NCARB wanted to come up with a fair approach to solving the vignettes for those people with limited CAD experience. They wanted anyone to be able to use it, no CAD experience necessary. So basically we all end up suffering 🙂 My best advice would be to keep practicing with several alternate programs to make sure you get very comfortable with the software as well as the requirements of the program for this vignette. Good luck and let us know about your success!


  5. Avatar
    Nicole March 4, 2015 at 6:41 am


    I am in the same boat. I thought I passed the vignette and had failed the multiple choice, but it turned out to be the opposite. It is so fustrating!

  6. David
    David March 6, 2015 at 10:21 am

    Hi Nicole,

    I agree it is frustrating. If you look at this whole process as a character building exercise that’ll help. We know it’s not about the skills we possess as an architect or designer, it’s just a test that we need to complete to obtain or license. Just keep pushing forward and you will get there. And once you do, you won’t look back at the number of times it took.

    Hang in there, you’ll get it!


  7. Avatar
    James Baptiste May 27, 2015 at 8:46 am

    I just got a “Fail” letter too. Exact same story as the folks above, nailed the multiple choice, somehow failed vignette. I’ve been doing this work for over 12yrs so I’m shocked. Does this sound plausible?….In Eric’s video, he indicates that the maximum building height in the program is 90′ so he draws a sketch line at 90 fee to set the upper limit. The program doesn’t say “90′ above the benchmark” nor “elevation 90 feet”, it says maximum building height is 90′. Does this mean 90′ from the lowest grade/building intersection at the section mark, 90′ from benchmark, or elevation 90′ as Eric indicated? I can’t think of any other dimension open to interpretation that I may have missed.

  8. Avatar
    Aubrey May 29, 2015 at 8:52 pm

    Hi James,

    So sorry to hear about your fail letter. This is a tricky one since there is only one correct answer so there isn’t a whole lot of wiggle room for error. As for your question about the maximum building height, the program from the NCARB study guide (the one we use as a basis for all our alternative vignette programs) says that the maximum building height should be taken from the benchmark elevation. The height will be listed in the program while the benchmark elevation will be called out on the plan. So for this program you mention, if the maximum building height is 90 feet above the benchmark elevation, you would find the benchmark elevation on the plan (for this vignette it is set at 105 feet) and you would add 90 feet to that elevation for an elevation of 195 feet for the maximum building height line. Hopefully that makes sense. Also, I would suggest to start with the vignette review guide as well as the DIY workbook and get a feel for the vignette requirements as well as practice a few on your own, then move on to the video walk-throughs that are meant to further reinforce the concepts. Good luck on your journey and don’t give up!!


  9. Avatar
    John McBride July 22, 2015 at 11:28 am

    I have a question about vignette #1 from the Review Guide. Per the program you have ‘the maximum building height limit between 0 and 45′ of the east property line’. The last number on the section grid is 140′ so you count backwards and it is at the 95′ line. Your sample correct solution has the east building height limit line at 38′ from the east prop line. What am I missing?

  10. Avatar
    Aubrey July 28, 2015 at 9:15 pm

    Hi John,
    Sorry for the confusion. That is an error we are aware of and will be correctly shortly once we release our updated guide. But you are correct, the height limit line should be 45 feet from the eastern property line, not 38 feet. It will be a simple update to the graphic to show the line at the correct location. The remaining information in the program and solutions is correct.

    Thanks again,

  11. Avatar
    Lance December 27, 2015 at 4:46 pm

    on your PPP site zoning program #3 DIY workbook.. it states that the set back from the drainage basin is 30′. on your passing solution you drew 30′ diameter circles centered on the basin line… wouldn’t that make it only a 15′ set back from the basin?

  12. Avatar
    Lance December 27, 2015 at 7:14 pm

    sorry.. let me correct myself..
    it states improvements prohibited within 30′ of the drainage basin. Your solutions shows a 30′ diameter circle centered on the basin line. Wouldn’t that allow buildings to be built within 15′ of the basin line? or am I missing something

  13. Avatar
    Aubrey January 10, 2016 at 2:22 pm

    Hi Lance,

    The sketch circles shown at the drainage basin are in fact 30′ in radius, not diameter. This maintains the 30′ required setback within the basin and our passing solution shows the areas of improvements staying within that setback as well. Keep in mind the topography lines shown indicate a vertical change in elevation height (needed to solve the section through the site) not a horizontal distance. I hope this helps answer your question!


  14. Avatar
    Danielle Ryan January 12, 2016 at 6:36 am

    I noticed you do not show any improvements (even site) in the easement. I do not see where it specifies if you can make any improvements in this area. Are you not supposed to make any improvements in the easement?

  15. Avatar
    Aubrey January 14, 2016 at 10:08 pm

    Hi Danielle,
    The short answer to your questions is – it depends. Remember to read the program carefully and note any setbacks required and any areas to remain undisturbed. If the program prohibits buildings in the easement but not surface improvements, you can extend the secondary construction area into the easement. BUT make sure to also maintain any setbacks from property lines, which in this case would keep both the buildable area and secondary area out of the easment since it runs down the center of the property line and the setbacks on each side are greater than the width of the easement. If the easement were elsewhere on the site, the solution would look different since the setbacks may not have kept the secondary area completely out of the easement.

    I hope this helps! 🙂


  16. Avatar
    Helen January 25, 2016 at 3:46 pm

    I have the same question as Lance. The solution for Vignette #3 shows circles with the diameter as 30′ and the radius as 15′. I used the Section A-A grid as the unit of measurement where each square of the grid is 10′. By taking 3 squares to make 30′ and matching it with the circles, the circles have a 30′ diameter.

  17. Avatar
    Zeke February 26, 2016 at 12:40 pm

    Yes, I too have just received a fail letter. This is my 2nd time failing this test. I bought your study guides before taking it a second time and learned the material fairly well to the point where I got a 92% on the all inclusive online test. I aced the vignette but failed the two portions of the multiple choice questions that I passed last year and passed 2 portions that I failed last year. This doesn’t make sense.. I’m just about over these tests.

  18. Avatar
    Aubrey February 27, 2016 at 6:29 pm

    Hi Zeke,

    I’m sorry to hear about your exam results. I very much understand your frustration, especially with passing portions you failed last time and failing portions you passed last time. I’ve heard the same story from friends of mine who have taken other ARE exams, I don’t really understand it and since NCARB doesn’t give much insight on why or how the scoring is different it’s hard to really say for sure. I would encourage you to keep at it and if you feel you need a little brain break from PPP, maybe try another exam before tackling this one again. Have you taken SPD or CDS? They have a lot of similarities to PPP, especially SPD (which would make sense as these two exams used to be one in the old 3.0 version of the AREs). If you haven’t taken SPD yet, studying for it may help fill in the gaps for PPP and ultimately you could be successful with both!

    I wish you the best of luck and though I know it’s hard, keep moving forward. Let us know how your journey goes and if you have any questions.

    All the best,


  19. Avatar
    Marcus August 5, 2016 at 11:25 am


    I recently put in a claim to NCARB and the NYS licensing board because I did not pass this vignette.

    I stated in my email:

    “I recently took the PPP exam on July 30, 2016 and I failed the Vignette portion of the exam only. I can state that there was a puzzling graphical error on the exam which may have led to my failure.

    There was a section cut at Lot B that terminated shy of the property line and section line. However, I drew the site section exactly as it was depicted. I am absolutely sure that I should have passed this portion of the exam as I completed it in 30 minutes and spent the remainder of the 30 minutes triple checking the requirements of the vignette. Moreover, the grade is at level three which is the lowest grade possible.

    I am requesting your assistance as there is no vignette review option available for the NY State Board to contest the results and I cannot sacrifice 2 months of my time and another $210 to retake this exam.

    Your assistance is be greatly appreciated.”

    Basically, I need to know that if the grade line does to span the entire length of the section grid if this is a automatic failing solution. This is what I did as I showed my solution exactly as it was depicted on the plan

    Thanks for your help.

  20. David
    David August 15, 2016 at 7:32 am

    Hi Marcus,

    Yeah, that’s the tough part about not passing the vignette portion as you receive no feedback. I’m not sure NCARB will respond with any additional information, but it’s worth a shot. Please keep me posted if you hear back from NCARB.

    Thanks, David

  21. Avatar
    Angela Scharrer August 20, 2016 at 9:24 am

    Do you guys know if you can run the vignette software on Windows 10? It says it’s incompatible… I tried to download the virtual PC and even that doesn’t seem to work with Windows 10. Thoughts?? Thanks so much!

  22. Avatar
    Brielle Cordingley August 25, 2016 at 8:11 pm

    Have you tried using a browser other than Edge? I have windows 10 and am able to run the vignette software from the NCARB website through Firefox. And NCARB now says it will work with Chrome, though I have not tried it yet.

  23. David
    David September 12, 2016 at 8:33 am

    thanks for the information and reply brielle!

    thanks, david

  24. Avatar
    Alejandro September 29, 2016 at 1:17 pm

    Hi David,

    I had the same problem. Vignette completed in 30 minutes, reviewed everything 100 times and failed…

    I will try to claim a review also.

    It´s terrible we can not do anything about this. They really push you to stop studying for the exams…

  25. Avatar
    Amy September 29, 2016 at 7:29 pm

    I get very irritated when people say “it’s ok, it’s character building.” I can’t afford this character. Not to mention that NCARB is making bank on our seeming ‘lack of character.’ I’m in the same boat of passing the MC and failing the vignette, which I was sure I aced. If it’s not a test of competence maybe these skills should be tested differently. I don’t want to donate more money on the chance of guessing right on the vignette.

  26. David
    David October 1, 2016 at 8:48 am

    Hi Alejandro,

    I completely understand. I failed Building Technology Vignette (back when it was 9 exams) and it’s no fun. BUT it was also a 6 month waiting period. Now with the 60 day waiting period, it’s a no brainer to get back on the horse and take the exam again. Personally I would bother with requesting a review (I haven’t heard of anyone successfully doing that), rather I’d focus you’re time and energy on preparing again. Just stay the course, you WILL get this.

    Thanks, David

  27. David
    David October 1, 2016 at 8:53 am

    Hi Amy,

    I understand the frustration, BUT it is character building. Life will continue to throw curveballs our way and oftentimes they are much bigger issues than anything related to the ARE. The issue is not the curveballs, the issue is how we respond and adjust to these curveballs. Anyone who has been successful in both the ARE or life, has had plenty of curveballs thrown at them. The way to keep moving forward is put your head down and keep moving forward. Don’t get sidetracked by negative feelings, they will not help you. Stay positive and stay the course and you will get through it. It took me 7 years to get through the ARE and I failed 2 exams in that process. It was not fun. HOWEVER, looking back it was the best decision ever to keep pushing and moving forward. I can’t imagine where’d I’d be if I just gave up.

    Hang in there and stay the course!


  28. Avatar
    Ana April 13, 2017 at 4:34 am

    PPP has been the hardest test for me to take.
    Even though I study all the things you are supposed to, I fail the multiple choice.
    Ive practice the vignette, write the program, and make sure I have everything and yet, every time, it’s in level 1. I am not sure what I am doing wrong anymore.

  29. David
    David May 16, 2017 at 11:49 am

    Hi Ana,

    I’m sorry to hear you’re having trouble but it’s not uncommon. I recommend scheduling a free 15 minute call with Eric. You can find the info in the sidebar of the website.

    Thanks, David

  30. Avatar
    Haley June 21, 2017 at 8:09 am

    I had a similar experience – I thought I passed the vignette but I failed and am trying to figure out why.

    Can you fail for retracing the grade line with the building profile line?

    Can you fail by retracing a landform setback for site area (water/trees) with buildable area?

    Lastly the only other thing I can think of is my landform setback may not have been accurate enough. Perhaps I should’ve sketched more setback circles and readjusted my line better. What’s the allowable margin of error?

  31. Avatar
    Debbie September 11, 2017 at 11:15 am

    David and marcus
    I also want to request a review of my PPP i also had plebty if time to review the vignette and cannot accept that i failed. Did ncarb review your score? did you receive and answer and had anyome received a score reversal after a review?

  32. Avatar
    Olga January 14, 2018 at 2:51 pm

    I too am confused about the vignette #3. It states surface improvements prohibited within 30′ of drainage basin. Your circle is drawn at 30′ diameter (15′ radius) centered on the drainage basin. Is this a mistake? Should it say within 15′ of the drainage basin?

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