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ARE Series: Project Planning & Design | PPD

Updated: Apr 1

Let's break down the ARE (Architecture Registration Exam)! In my ARE Series I am taking you through each exam, how I studied, what I found useful, and how to pass. The fourth in the series is all about Programming & Analysis (PA).

If this is your first post, I recommend starting with some of my other videos first. How to Get Through the ARE is a great starting point. I give you a rough idea of the entire exam process, what order to take the exams in, and most importantly what to do if (when) you fail. Start here and then come back when you're ready for PPD!

Watch my Practice Management video here.

Watch my Project Management video here.

Watch my Construction Evaluation video here.

Watch my Programming & Analysis video here.

Now let's talk about Project Planning & Design

Note: For some reason, I was having technical difficulty after technical difficulty with this video. So, it doesn't have any text or additional visuals. Sorry! I wanted to get it out to you either way, so enjoy! Listen to the podcast.


Download my free list of resources here

Join the Mind Over ARE waitlist now to get first access to my next group coaching.

Overcome Test Anxiety

Before diving into the typical post where I talk about what you should expect to see on the exam, I want to take a minute to talk about something very real that affects a lot of people (including myself) when taking these exams: test anxiety. We can spend all the time in the world talking about details, fire separation, occupancy groups, and moment frames, but at the end of the day, if we're not in the right mindset to take these exams, they're going to be difficult to pass. It’s more than just knowing the information. I could (and will) create a whole post on test mindset because it has a huge impact on the success of these exams.

I bring up test anxiety and mindset during PPD because this can be one of the hardest exams for people to get through. Some people take it multiple times, and I myself passed on my third try. So, it's where test anxiety can really start creeping in. It's important to develop strategies to help you deal with this so you can focus on the actual information you have studied hard for!

Strategies to overcome test anxiety:

  • Visualization: Visualize yourself passing...and failing! I know we're not used to visualizing ourselves fail, of course it's not like we want to manifest that, but there is a lot of strength in visualizing what can go wrong. I talk a little more about this here.

  • Breathwork: Focusing on deep, organized breathing can help you calm your nerves and stay focused. I had a ritual as soon as I sat down for my test: I would get comfortable, close my eyes, and take 3 deep breaths. I'd end it with a smile to send endorphins to my brain and then get started!

  • Movement: One way to get rid of nervous energy is to physically get it out of your system! Before you go into your exam do a few jumping jacks, maybe some push-ups, or even a fast pace yoga sequence. Moving your body expels extra energy and allows your mind to settle down and focus.

  • Hypnotherapy: Hypnotherapy/hypnosis is a powerful tool, and I walk people through it inside Mind Over ARE. It can be self-directed or assisted by someone else. It's 100% worth exploring if you are struggling to pass the exams!

If you want to go deeper into this topic and receive the tools, techniques, and strategies to completely eliminate exam stress, worry, and anxiety, make sure you join us inside Mind Over ARE (MOA). MOA is not just a study group and community, it's also an online program that shows you the most effective way to pass the ARE® without losing your sanity. Get on the priority list HERE.

Project Planning & Design

First off, PPD is a whopper. It's a big one. I personally felt that PPD was more difficult than PDD, even though it was my understanding that PDD was the hardest. PPD is difficult because it is so broad. There is SO. MUCH. INFORMATION! Everything from materials to structures to sustainability to cost analysis to programming...I could go on.

So, not only does this make it tough to study because there is so much information to pack into your brain, it's just a lot to sit down and think about for a single exam. I say all this not to freak you out but to remember to be kind to yourself.

Go through the information knowing that you're not going to be an expert on every single subject. Instead of memorizing and perfecting every concept, try to get a good understanding of the information as a whole. Understand why the answers are what they are, why they are important to us as architects, and how you can efficiently find the information you need to answer the correct answer.

During the exam, you are provided with certain tools and handouts. These might include contracts, sections of the building code, and plans. It's important to know how to use these resources efficiently. Know where exactly to look for the information. The worst is when the information is provided to you, but you don't have enough time to find it because you don't know exactly where to look. One strategy to deal with something like this is to know the actual names of the IBC chapters.

Homework: Name chapters 3, 5, 6, 7, 10 of IBC and what they cover.

Let's dive into the specific sections, and then at the end, I'll give you a few extra tips and items you should make sure to study.

Want to know exactly what resources to study for each section (resource, chapter, focus area, etc)? Make sure you get The Ultimate Study Plan here.

sections of the exam

SECTION 1: Environmental Conditions & Context


  • The first section of PPD is very similar to what was in PA. How will the site's environmental conditions affect the design?

    • What sort of restraints are there—topography, site elements, creeks, trees, hazardous materials, just to name a few examples?

  • Where should a building be located on a site?

    • What factors affect this: wind, hills, orientation, etc.? Have a good understanding of sun movement patterns, daylighting design, and wind. This not only affects sustainability but also comfort.

  • How can you take advantage of the existing site elements to design the healthiest building?

    • Always remember, the HEALTH, SAFETY, and WELFARE of the general public is our #1 concern. So, how do certain site elements affect this? Think of landscape buffers (evergreen vs. deciduous trees, hills, etc.): how can you use them to block sound, wind, etc?

  • Know the different types of streets and access points.

    • How should a building be located in relation to these? Where should the curb cuts be? There are certain distances they need to be from different types of streets, make sure you understand this.

  • Where should specific items go on a site, like utilities, drainage, service access, etc?

  • Understand sustainable principles as well, like water harvesting and passive design.

    • Where can you capture wind, sun, etc., depending on the exact location?

  • Know how to read topography lines.

    • Concave slopes = closer spaced contour lines near the top of the slope

    • Convex slopes = closer spaced contour lines at the bottom of the slope.

SECTION 2: Codes and Regulations 16-22%

  • Here is another section that you studied in PA: Codes and regulations.

    • Codes are important for this exam, and like PA, you'll need to know building codes, ADA, and energy requirements.

    • Always keep in mind the health and safety of the occupants.

    • How can someone safely exit a building?

    • What sort of fire separation is needed between occupancies?

    • What is designed to protect the occupants from fire, earthquakes, and other disasters?

  • Zoning: Know what you can build - size, shape, setbacks, and what sort of provisions there are to allow increases (frontage increase calculations are important!).

SECTION 3: Building Systems, Materials, & Assemblies 19-25%

Alright, now we're getting into the meat of the design (I don't know how else to describe it). You need to understand how all the systems and materials come together to form a proper project. This is where an architect also needs to be a structural, civil, mechanical, and electrical engineer, an interior designer, an energy consultant, a lighting designer, an acoustic engineer, and a financial consultant.

I'm kidding...but not really. As architects, we have to understand many different disciplines—essentially everything that makes up a building. It doesn't mean you have to be an EXPERT in all of these subjects, but you have to understand them.

  • Know what the types of systems are and when to use them. 

    • Including the structure itself, HVAC, electrical, etc.

    • Example: if a client wants the first floor of their building to be fully open, how does that affect what type of structure is used?

    • If the soils are a certain type, what type of system is needed?

  • The Architect's Studio Companion is CRITICAL for this exam, especially for this section.  

  • STC: Understand the difference between sound transmission high vs low.

    • What type of material has the highest and what does that mean?

    • The higher the STC rating, the better the barrier’s ability to control sound transmission.

    • Highly recommend practicing STC equations. Check out The ABC Club for practice problems.

  • Understand Sound / Acoustics

    • If additional absorptive material is being added to a room, how much needs to be added?

    • What values make a difference?

  • Know when certain systems are required based on a constraint.

    • An example is if a building has restrictions on recirculating air because of health reasons (like a hospital). This will affect the HVAC system used. So, when you're studying for PPD, don't just think of where something WILL be used; also consider where it WON'T be.

SECTION 4: Project Integration of Program & Systems 32-38%

The notes from the above section are important for Section 4 too. Now you're taking all the various rules and regulations and implementing them into our specific building. How will the shape, design, structure, and make-up of a building be affected based on everything we've talked about?

  • Understand the principles of structures, not just calculations.

  • Like what is the calculation actually telling you, what does it mean?

  • TIP: Pay close attention to the units in the question to help you figure out how to solve problems. For example, on a structural question, there might be 4 multiple-choice answers that are all in lbs. You’re given some sort of diagram with dimensions of a building and are told that there’s some sort of number, say 5 lbs/sf of force acting on a building. You need to get from lbs per square foot to lbs, so you need to make sure you're not forgetting this in your calls.

  • Hint: if you multiply lbs/SF x SF, you will end up with an answer in lbs because the two SF units cancel each other out. So, during your calcs you have to calculate the area of something in the diagram to get SF. This is an example of simple arithmetic but something easy to overlook. Don't let something silly like that cause you to miss the answer.

  • Slow down and really look at what they're asking.

  • The above tips also relate to converting numbers like square foot to cubed foot and acres and miles, you need to know how to convert these types of things.

  • What is torsion?

  • How do you calculate moment?

  • What is moment bending?

  • How do forces act on a member?

  • How do structures fail?

  • They may ask you a question where you need to figure out the moment about a specific point. If a building is under a certain loading condition, what is the load on a specific area?

  • You need to have a really good understanding of moment and shear diagrams.

  • The Architect's Studio Companion is critical for this.

  • On page 31, there is a chart comparing structural spans.

  • Understand shear walls, braced frames, and rigid frames.

  • How do you properly integrate these into a building, and when is one system preferred over another?

  • Fundamentals of Building Construction is also really helpful for understanding moment vs shear connections, steel and lateral structural systems.

  • TIP: For rigid frames, The Architect's Studio Companion says, ”shear walls can also be part of the exterior wall, although in this location they limit access to daylight and interior views.”

  • This is the type of information that is critical for the exams. It gives you the information you need to know to design a building properly for your client's goals. So, if you get a question about lateral structural systems and your client wants a lot of light and perimeter windows, you know shear wall is not the right answer.

  • Know how to calculate slope.

  • Understand fire and how to protect against it.

  • What are the different hour ratings?

  • What structures/materials are combustable/non-combustable?

  • What type of materials can be exposed in a specific occupancy?

  • What are the different types of construction and how do these relate to fire?

  • How do you deal with fire ratings in historic buildings?

SECTION 5: Project Costs & Budgeting 8-14%

  • You may be asked to analyze a design and calculate costs to determine which option to go with. TIPS:

  • Practice all cost estimating calculations, not just for PPD, but any you can find for the ARE®. Do them over and over until they make sense and come easily.

  • Just like in the structural calcs, pay attention to the UNITS.

  • They may want the answer in cost per square yard of material, but the question only provides a square foot number. Make sure you know how to go from square foot to square yard!

  • I know the new whiteboard system is so much more cumbersome than a good ol' fashion pencil and paper, but try to write out these units in the equation as you go so you don't forget to convert it. If you catch these subtle tricks, then the calculations aren't difficult.

  • You'll want to know how to do a material take-off to understand how much is needed and how that might impact costs.

  • Understand when certain types of cost analysis are done.

  • At what stage of design?

  • When one type of cost analysis is preferred over another (i.e. cost per unit).

  • Know what types of systems and structures would be more cost-efficient.

  • What materials can you use in your structure that save cost?

Extra Tips you need to Know

  • IBC 3, 5, 6, 7, 10: Learn them. Live them. Love them.


  • Make sure you read through FEMA earthquake manual ch 4,5. Download my resource guide for these links and recommendations.

  • You'll need to understand parking requirements - how many spaces are needed, sizes, what's required for circulation, walkways, etc.

  • Allowable building footprint / area

  • Location of buildings on site

  • Occupant loads

  • Frontage increases and how this affects what can be built

  • Historical buildings - how they should be treated, reused, adapted etc, for both historic structures complying with the NPS standards and just older buildings being adapted to new uses.

  • Hazardous conditions, how to deal with them - asbestos, radon, dioxide, etc.

  • Know common path of travel and dead end corridors

  • Soils; which are best to build on, drainage, liquefaction etc.

  • Adjacencies: know how these diagrams/floor plan layouts work. NOTE: If you are given an adjacency plan where you need to move the pieces, don't forget you can rotate them! There are definite right and wrong directions, even if they are in the right place.

Important to Remember

  1. Understand the concept BEHIND the question. When you are studying, it's important to understand why the answer or solution is the way it is. Memorization is not an effect study method for these exams. When you are taking a practice test, go through all the ones you did not answer correctly and try to really understand why the answer is what it is.

  2. Not every exam is the same. This is why it's important to study a little bit of everything, but if you get a wildcard exam (AKA an exam from hell) try not to stress it. If you don't pass the first time you'll get it the next time!

  3. The most important thing as an architect is that we design healthy buildings. As you can remember from the first 3 exams, say it with me: we need to make sure we protect the HEATH, SAFETY, + WELFARE of the general public. So, when thinking about the site and programming, you need to think of how the different elements will keep the occupants safe and comfortable.

Study Tips

Want to know exactly what resources to study for this exam (resource, chapter, focus area, what chapters NOT to read, etc)? Make sure you get The Ultimate Study Plan (USP) here.

  1. ARE Handbook: Look over the handbook and see what they want you to study. Refer to the handbook often to ensure you are studying for each section.

  2. Resource Guide: Download my resource guide to show you what resources are best for this exam. Below are a few important areas to review in these resources.

    1. IBC

    2. ADA

    3. Heating, Cooling, Lighting - (read if time after ASC, it will come in more for PDD)

    4. Arch graphic standards

  3. The Architect's Studio Companion (ASC): This is critical for this exam and PDD [Check out USP to see which chapters to pay special attention to]

  4. ARE 5 Review Manual: This manual breaks down each section of the exam with study material, it's so incredibly helpful!

  5. Building Construction Illustrated: This is needed for understanding construction details. This is critical for PDD, but it is worth looking into now.

  6. Sun, Wind, & Light: This book is critical for this exam! Don't skip it. It's also a great book for your studio, so it's worth the investment. I have heard the 2nd edition is better than the 3rd, but I have the 3rd and it is great.

  7. Practice Practice Practice: The ABC Club, Ballast practice exams, Designer Hacks. and Hyperfine

  8. Cornell Notes: You may not have used these since high school (do they even still teach these in school??), but there is value in notes! Take notes while you're studying.

  9. Filler Words: Read the exam questions VERY carefully. They will try to add extra information or filler words in the questions just to add noise to your head. Cross out any information that isn't relevant to what they are actually asking. Don't get bogged down by unnecessary information.

  10. Hold Yourself Accountable! Schedule it, create an incentive for yourself, join a study group (Mind Over ARE) anything to hold yourself accountable. It's so easy to put off taking the exam, so design a way to make it harder for yourself to push it aside.

Now, what really helped me pass the third time around (other than taking it and studying really hard the first two times) was developing a completely new strategy for taking the exams! I went from failing one after another to passing three exams in three months and being DONE! Now, I teach this strategy inside Mind Over ARE. Join the priority list now to find out when our next cohort begins. Let's get you licensed!

As always, I go into a lot more detail in my video/podcast episode, so make sure to check it out!


As a special thank you, we're giving you ARE® 5.0 practice problems from our Activity Book for Architects... completely FREE! Download your ARE® homework here to take your studying to the next level.

Good luck! Please reach out with any questions as you move through your studies and please let me know if this has been helpful!

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