A Look At the 3 "Easier" Exams for the Architect Registration Exam

A few months ago we took a look at all 7 Exams of the Architect Registration Exam and I grouped them into Easier and Harder Exams. Today, we’re going to take a closer look at the 3 “Easier” Exams.

1,2,3The “Easier” Exams consist of:

1. SPD – Site Planning and Design

2. PPP – Programming, Planning, and Practice

3. CDS – Construction Documents and Services

Let’s take a look at each one and then we’ll examine the common traits. BUT before we begin, please understand that just because I’m referring to these as the “Easier” Exams, I am not saying they are easy, because they are not.

They’re just easier than the more technical oriented exams focusing on structural systems and building technology. Studying for those can literally make your head spin.

First up is SPD or Site Planning and Design. SPD consists of a Multiple Choice Section and a Graphic Section.

The Multiple Choice Section for SPD consists of 65 questions covering the broad topic of Site Planning and Design. Of the three Exams we are discussing, this is the broadest and most likely to have some overlapping information. The NCARB SPD Exam Guide breaks SPD down in to 5 main content areas, or as we here at Architect Exam Prep refer to them; Modules.

Module 1 is Principles and consists of subject matter related to Site Planning, Site Design and Design Principles, Implications of Design Decisions, Adaptive Reuse of Buildings and Materials and Architectural History and Theory.

Module 2 is Environmental Issues and covers subjects related to Interpreting Existing Site/Environmental Conditions and Data, Design Impact on Human Behavior, Hazardous Conditions and Materials, Sustainable Design, and Alternative Energy Systems and New Material Technologies.

Module 3 is Codes and Regulations an contains Government and Regulatory Requirements and Permit Processes, and Accessibility Laws, Codes, and Guidelines.

Module 4 is Materials and Technology and consists of Construction Details and Constructability, Construction Materials, Fixtures Furniture Equipment and Finishes, Product Selection and Availability, Thermal and Moisture Protection, Natural and Artificial Lighting, and Implications of Design Decisions.

Module 5 is Project & Practice Management which covers Construction Sequencing, Cost Estimating, Value Engineering and Life-cycle Costing, Project Schedule Management, and Risk Management.

The Graphic Section for SPD consists of two Graphic Vignettes, Site Design and Site Grading. The Site Design Vignette is the more difficult vignette as you are required to strategically place objects on the site, being careful to pay attention to the program requirements and setbacks from the property lines as well as other site features. The Site Grading Vignette is more straight forward and simpler, as long as you understand drawing contours and the contour formula.

Second up is PPP or Programming, Planning, and Practice. PPP consists of a Multiple Choice Section and Graphic Section.

The Multiple Choice Section for PPP consists of 85 questions covering the practice of architecture. The NCARB PPP Exam Guide breaks the content down into 4 content areas, or Modules.

Module 1 is Progamming & Analysis and consists of Architectural Programming, Interpreting Existing Site/Environmental Conditions and Data, Adaptive Reuse of Buildings and/or Materials, Space Planning and Facility Planning/Management, and Fixtures Furniture Equipment and Finishes

Module 2 is Environmental Social & Economic Issues and is comprised of subject matter relating to Regional Impact on a Project, Community-Based Awareness, Hazardous Conditions and Materials, Design Principles, Alternative Energy Systems, New Technologies, and Sustainable Design, and Architectural History and Theory.

Module 3 is Codes & Regulations and covers Government and Regulatory Requirements and Permit Processes, Adaptive Reuse of Buildings and Materials, and Specialty Codes and Regulations including Accessibility Laws, Codes, and Guidelines.

Module 4 is Project & Practice Management which includes Project Delivery Methods, Project Budget Management, Project Schedule Management, Contracts for Professional Services and Contract Negotiation, Construction Procurement Processes, and Risk Management and Legal Issues Pertaining to Practice and Contracts.

As you can start to see, PPP and SPD have content that is overlapping which is why we recommend taking them around the same time. I’ll cover the order I recommend taking these three exams near the end of the article.

The Graphic Section for PPP consists of an easy, but no room for error, Site Zoning Vignette. The Site Zoning Vignette is not difficult but there is really only one solution so attention to detail is critical because if you miss an important requirement, it will be difficult to pass. So attention to detail is what this vignette is all about.

Rounding out our 3 is CDS or Construction Documents and Services which also consists of a Multiple Choice Section and Graphic Section.

The Multiple Choice Section for CDS consists of 100 questions covering the concepts related to the AIA documents. The NCARB CDS Exam Guide breaks the information down into 4 content areas, or Modules. A quick note here is Module 1 and Module 2 is a small part of the Exam. Module 3 and Module 4, which focus on concepts associated with the AIA documents, makes up 82-92% of the Exam.

The most challenging part of  CDS is becoming familiar with the content of the AIA documents. They cover a lot of information and you are expected to be familiar with them and know how they apply to real world situations. The good news is this information is straightforward and there shouldn’t be any mystery once you understand the AIA documents. CDS is focused almost entirely on the AIA documents and that is a good thing because you know exactly what you should be studying.

Module 1 is Codes & Regulations and consists of Government and Regulatory Requirements and Permit Processes, and Specialty Codes and Regulations including Accessibility Laws, Codes, and Guidelines.

Module 2 is Environmental Issues and covers Hazardous Conditions and Materials, Indoor Air Quality, and Sustainable Design.

Module 3 is Construction Drawings & Project Manual and covers Site Design, Building Design, Building Systems and their Integration, Specifications, and Construction Details and Constructability. Module 3 predominately focuses on how we, as architect, provide our design services.

Module 4 is Project & Practice Management and includes topics relating to Costs, Scheduling and Coordination, Project Delivery, and Contracts & Legal Issues. Module 4 predominately focuses on Contract Administration.

The Graphic Section for CDS consists of one Graphic Vignette, the Building Section. The Building Section is not difficult providing you’ve practiced and are comfortable drawing sections in a limited amount of time. Like the other vignettes we’ve discussed, paying particular attention to the program requirements is one of the most important parts in order to draw your solution correctly.

A few months ago in my post about understanding the 7 exams better, I recommend taking the 3 easier exams in the order of SPD > PPP > CDS.

However, after spending knee deep in NCARB’s exam guides and creating the material for each of those divisions over the last several months, I think the better plan is this; 


The reason is because CDS is the most focused of the three, and more focus means easier preparation because you know exactly what to study. There’s less guesswork or gray areas in this subject matter.

CDS is predominately about how we provide architectural services and contract administration during construction. So I recommend starting with CDS and jumping in with both feet into the AIA documents, especially the A201 General Conditions of the Contract for Construction, B101 Agreement Between Owner and Architect, and the A101 Agreement Between Owner and Contractor. There are some other AIA documents you will want to be familiar with as well including the B202, B203, C401, G701, G702, G704, G710, and G714.

One of the key concepts to understand with the AIA documents is the role, responsibilities, and relationship of the main three players, the Owner, the Architect, and the Contractor. You have to have a solid understanding of what each player does and how they relate to each of the other players.

I hope this helps in planning your own path to taking the Architect Registration Exam. Remember, the main thing here is to dive in and get started.

Have you started taking the ARE? What exam did you start with first? Let us know by leaving a comment below.


By |2019-01-21T18:39:49+00:00January 28th, 2014|Categories: Study Advice|24 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
    Mario Puerta February 8, 2014 at 1:07 pm

    I actually took the order of SPD, PPP and scheduled for the CDS portion next month. I have to say your program as the backbone of the information that focus on with overlapping resources and references suggested by NCARB. I can say that I felt as prepared as I could possibly be for both SPD and PPP. In case anyone is wondering I did pass SPD and failed the vignette portion of PPP (Not sure why as I felt prepared but just as David mentioned there is no room for error and might have messed up the section portion of the vignette.) In either case I would like to quote David and say “I am only a soldier in this process” and I will continue to march on. Thanks for all the work your team puts into the study materials and look forward to the other division study guides.

  2. David
    David February 14, 2014 at 9:29 am

    Hi Mario, thanks for the kind words. You’re attitude is spot on. It’s all about moving forward and not getting bogged down in not passing, because if you hang in there, you will get it.

    Keep us posted in your progress!


  3. Avatar
    Mario Puerta March 14, 2014 at 8:43 am


    Keep up the good work I just received my Pass for CDS!! Couldn’t have done it without your study tools and audio files. Looking forward to more of your study guides, keep up the good work!

  4. David
    David March 19, 2014 at 7:21 am

    Hi Mario,

    Congratulations! Thanks for the kind words 🙂 I’m glad we were able to help. Yes, the audio companion is awesome. We’re hoping to have the remaining 4 divisions rolled out in May. Keep up the great work!


  5. Avatar
    Bruno G. April 21, 2014 at 10:41 am

    Hi David,
    I”m looking to start studying for SPD this coming season. I have heard some of your videos on YouTube, which exams you recommend study together with SPD?

  6. David
    David April 22, 2014 at 11:34 am

    Hi bruno! I recommend PPP and CDS which are described in the article above.

    good luck!


  7. Avatar
    chuck June 1, 2014 at 9:10 am

    I just took the CDS. I felt very prepared. Thank you for preparing such great study materials. Scheduleing the PPP exam date today, giving myself 4 weeks

  8. David
    David June 2, 2014 at 1:46 pm

    Hi Chuck, that is great news! You are most welcome. I’ll be looking forward to hearing your results.

    Thanks, David

  9. Avatar
    Jay June 28, 2014 at 7:29 pm

    Hi David,

    Just took the PPP today (my 1st test). Feel pretty confident I passed, but you never know. It helps getting your feet wet for what to expect about the testing program, test location and testing in general.
    Will be scheduling the CDS section for the end of July.

  10. David
    David July 3, 2014 at 9:15 am

    Hi Jay, that’s great! Fingers crossed for you. Yup it’s good to dive in and go for it. It’s all part of the learning experience. Sounds like it’s been good so far. Keep me posted!

    Thanks, David

  11. Avatar
    Tarra July 7, 2014 at 9:59 am

    Hi David,

    I am ready to purchase your products and would like to ask you some advice. I also thought to study PPP, SPD & CDS together. Because I am in Asia, I have to fly to Hong Kong to take the test which takes a day to get there. My plan is to study PPP & SPD for 2 months together and take the test back to back in two days, so I don’t have to fly to Hong Kong 7 times separately.

    What do you think about taking two or three test at the same time? (I did see you recommended to take one at a time but possible to pass two?) If I do take two tests first at the same time, which combination would be better? [CDS & SPD] or [PPP & SPD]?

    look forward to hearing your advice. Thank you!

  12. David
    David July 15, 2014 at 9:36 am

    Hi Tarra, I think it would be reasonable to take two at a time, but three would be a bit much. I think PPP and CDS would be a nice pairing. I think SPD is the broader of the three, so I would take that last after preparing for CDS and PPP. I think CDS and PPP could be quite complimentary and should pair well together in the studying.

    Hope that helps!

    Thanks, David

  13. Avatar
    Tarra July 24, 2014 at 3:58 am

    Hi David,

    Thanks for your advice. I wanted to study right away, so I purchased your SPD package before your reply. The first test, I’ll take only one division to experience the ARE. 🙂

    BTW, how many questions are in your SPD-Omces? I couldn’t see the number of questions you have in that section on your product page. I’ll request to access it next week but I would like to know the amount of questions. Other divisions have same amount of questions in their Omces?

    Thank you.


    P.S. PPI’s ARE review manual recommended to take PPP after CDS & BDCS. Do you agree?

  14. David
    David July 27, 2014 at 10:43 am

    Hi Tarra, there are 260 total questions in the test bank. we’ve broken it down to 4 different exams of 85 questions each and then a final exam with all 260 questions. In terms of the exam order, I covered in this blog post above on what I recommend and why.

    Thanks, David

  15. Avatar
    Ken August 8, 2014 at 3:59 am

    Hi, David,
    I took the CDS exam as my first test on February 13, 2014, prior to knowing anything about your study materials. I’ve worked in the architectural field for longer than I care to admit, so I have experience, but tend to have a bit of testing anxiety when it comes to sitting for an exam. I went into this exam a little nervous and when finished I kind of felt as though I’d been kicked in the head. I felt like I might have done enough to pass, but really wasn’t confident at all. I got my passing notification the following week, thank God, but it shook me up to the point of searching for some new study material which led me to you.

    I’m studying for the BDCS now, and will schedule the exam for this month. Your special offers on early release purchases of both the BDCS and BS exams were too good to pass up, so I’m not taking all three of these “easier” exams in the order described. But, to be honest, I don’t mind the idea of pounding out a couple of the tougher tests now and having something a little easier to look forward to down the road. The audio companion is awesome, and I’ve just requested access to the OMCES and video vignette walk-thru program. Your study guide has me feeling more confident in the material to be covered in the multiple choice portion of the exam, and I’m looking forward to trying out these online components leading up to this next exam.

    Thanks for putting all of this together, and for giving me a level of comfort in preparing for this next exam.

    Best regards,

  16. David
    David August 18, 2014 at 8:43 am

    Hi Ken!

    Thanks for the awesome words, very much appreciated 🙂 I like how you’re knocking some of the hard stuff out now, and having something easier to look forward to later on. It’s all about being mentally prepared and you’ve thought about your strategy and moving forward. Awesome!

    Keep me posted on your progress!

    Thanks, David

  17. Avatar
    Ken August 22, 2014 at 5:34 am

    Hi, David,
    To follow up. . . I took BDCS on 8/15 and felt pretty confident going in after using most of the resources you offer. (Didn’t quite get into the flashcards.) After getting 10 – 12 questions into the exam I started feeling the anxiety build as there were questions on content that I didn’t have specific exposure to during my preparations. That being said, the vignettes ranged from “piece of cake” to “man I’m glad I have 2 hours to figure this out!” The ramp went perfectly. The stair had a requirement that I read during practice, but don’t recall seeing/hearing comments on during the passing and failing solution reviews. I caught it in my final check, so I was able to fix it before moving on. And the roof completely spun me around. The building had a little bit of a surprise in its shape that took me much longer to resolve than I would have hoped, but I still had enough time to finish.

    I came out feeling like I was kind of on the fence, but thought I passed. I got my confirmation of passing on Wednesday (sooner than I expected), and can take a deep breath before attacking my next victim. Two down, five to go.

    Thanks again for a solid product and timely user support.

    Best regards,

  18. David
    David September 3, 2014 at 12:18 pm

    Hi Ken, that is great news!thanks SO much for the update. I look forward to hearing about your continued success 🙂

    Congrats again!


  19. Avatar
    joshua May 14, 2015 at 10:43 am

    I like to see feed back. thank you. makes things more comfortable.
    I took these three exams first in order of cds spd and ppp.
    I passed all three. my personal opinion and it might just be my luck of the questions pool for the exams but cds and ppp where the exact same questions (not literally but same concepts, material, even similar definition questions just reworded.) I took a huge risk and barely studied for ppp, and simply re-reviewed some cds material for ppp.
    my next three are bs ss and bdcs. ahhhhh haha good luck all.
    my biggest advice is lose the fear of failing and just start. you’ll never get to the end if you never start at a beginning.

  20. David
    David May 15, 2015 at 11:23 am

    Congratulations on passing your exams and moving your way through the process Joshua! I totally agree, you just need to get in the game and start playing. You have no chance of passing if you’re sitting on the sidelines. Keep me posted on your progress!

    Thanks, David

  21. Avatar
    Rene August 8, 2016 at 7:58 am

    I started with CD on June 3rd and passed. I studied very thouroughly for this one. I just recently took PPP on July 21st and passed it. I did not study for it as thouroughly as I had some personal issues arise during this time. Luckily some of the first exam study material was repeated in this exam. I am currently preparing for the SPD to take at the end of the month of August. There is definitely some overlap and I recommend taking these 3 consecutively. I think your advice is good advice. Your study materials have been very helpful! I am glad I purchased them. Well worth it!

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

    Hi Rene,

    Congratulations that is great news! It sounds like your thorough studying for PPP paid off when taking CDS as well. Good luck on SPD, keep me posted!

    Thanks, David

  23. Avatar
    Sarah Holnbeck February 14, 2017 at 6:32 am

    Thanks for the tips, David. After some struggles with the ARE I have now passed CDS and PPP using your guides (audio companion is golden!) and am about to take SPD. What are your thoughts on doing the 5.0 transition after passing CDS, PPP & SPD?

  24. David
    David February 14, 2017 at 8:09 pm

    Hi sarah,

    I think the transition of the 5 exams is the best deal in town. Once you pass SPD, you can just take PPD and PDD and be done. Some of the content in those two 5.0 divisions will be familiar from 4.0, so it’ll help reinforce the info you already know. With that said, it sounds like the 5.0 test is different types of questions than 4.0 but you’ll probably hear more info about that on the forums.

    Keep me posted on your results!

    Thanks, David

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About the A.R.E.

The Architect Registration Examination® (ARE®) is an exam of 6 divisions used to assess your knowledge and skills regarding the practice of Architecture. Developed by NCARB, the exam is accepted by every state in the U.S. as a pathway to becoming a Licensed Architect.