9.20.2014

A Completely BS Exam

My arduous journey through the land of NCARB continued today with the Building Systems (BS) exam.  So far, it's been Caroline: 3, NCARB: 1, and I'm waiting now for the BS results.  I'm feeling quite ambivalent about this one - not as despairing as after Structures, but not at all sure that I passed.  There were quite a few questions that I simply had no idea how to answer.  Nothing to do now but wait.

Since my last ARE-related post, I passed Schematic Design, which, as expected, wasn't too difficult.  I practiced drawing the two vignettes over and over until I was satisfied with my speed.  Even then, I managed to make a mistake on the exam that I only caught after completely finishing my building design, which caused me to have to re-draw nearly from scratch.  Fortunately the practice paid off, and I had enough time to re-draw without too much hyperventilating.  I'm glad that one's done!

My study routine has continued to be: (1) Read all the relevant chapters of Ballast's ARE Review Manual, 2nd edition, 2011; (2) Re-read and take notes on the Ballast chapters; (3) Read all of the Kaplan book; (4) Read through and take the exams in the PPI "Samples Problems and Practice Exam" subject book; (5) Take practice exams from Kaplan, in the "Questions & Answers" book and "ARE Practice Vignettes" book; (6) Study the Dorf manual for the vignettes; (7) Read any useful supplementary material from the web and the NCARB exam guide; (8) Go through the vignette a few times using the free NCARB software, which I've installed on a Windows virtual machine since I have Windows 8 and can't run it directly.  I'm very fortunate that my firm had all of these guides already, so I haven't had to pay for any study materials (although the exams themselves aren't cheap).  My experience has been that the NCARB exam guide is next to useless for preparing for the vignettes, and the best information for those has been in the Dorf guide.  He's got everything figured out and really helps you prioritize your solution and make the best use of your time.  After reading the NCARB guide, I'm almost always left with questions about what is or isn't permitted in the vignette, and Dorf almost always answers these questions.  I didn't know about the Dorf guide when I took Site Planning, but now that I do, I have a much better feeling about re-taking it.

For the BS exam, during my studying I found that this is a difficult exam for the sheer breadth of content more than for the difficulty of the concepts (in contrast to the structural exam).  There was a ton of memorization required.  In retrospect, I wish I had spent more time reviewing after my initial read-throughs, so that I could have absorbed the specific details more thoroughly.  I also wish that I had spent more time reading supplementary information, since even with Kaplan and Ballast together, it didn't feel like enough.

I almost missed studying for the "conveying systems" section of the exam, since the vertical transportation chapter in Ballast is in a different exam section - it's under BDCS, not BS, since it also contains information about stairs that's relevant to BDCS.  I had noticed that Kaplan covered elevators and escalators, but didn't think too much of it, until the night before the exam I read through a colleague's study notes and realized that conveying systems was hiding in that other Ballast section.  Vertical transportation is clearly listed in the NCARB exam guide for BS, but again, I had somehow overlooked it - it's in the same section (Specialties) with acoustics and fire protection, which I definitely had studied.  Don't forget this chapter in Ballast!

My other pet peeve with the BS exam study material (and by extension, with the exam itself) is how it expects you to learn about building systems technology that's already outdated since the exam isn't updated with much frequency.  For example, there was next to nothing about LED lighting in any of the study materials, but at my firm we're specifying nearly 50% LED lighting for our projects.  All my study materials covered types and shapes of incandescent bulbs (A=arbitrary, P=pear, etc), but these bulbs aren't used anymore, and there was nothing about LED drivers, heat syncs, or controls, which are a huge part of current lighting design.  Similarly, the study materials expect you to know what percent of electric loading is due to light fixtures, and how much energy is used by these fixtures, but it's all based on using old technology.  Current California building code for offices, eg, requires a maximum of .75 Watts/sf of lighting power use, and lighting as a percent of power use has decreased in the past 5-10 years, but the study books are so old they cite 2 to 5 W/sf as typical and quote much higher energy use figures.  It becomes a brain-teaser to figure out whether I'm supposed to answer questions with data from now or from ten years ago.  I'm glad that the exam is going to be updated in 2016, but if the exam only gets updated every 7 years, the technology questions need to be more general so that they still make sense +/-10 years after the exam is written.

This whole exam process has dragged on and on.  I initially hoped to be done with everything by year's end, but it looks like I will have one exam left in 2015 plus any re-takes (including SPD for sure).  That's not too much later than I thought, but I had no idea how wearying this whole process would be.  The knowledge that there's always another exam right around the corner has prevented me from tackling other projects at home and has made me reluctant to commit to new activities.  I'm really looking forward to the end.  I will take BDCS (Building Design and Construction Systems) in November, and then I'm planning to take a break for the holidays.  Wish me luck.

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