NALSA Publishing

How to Use the Cut Stairs Tool Correctly

If you’re confused by the cut stairs tool, you’re not alone. For many candidates it's not intuitive. Don't worry. After a couple of practice runs you'll have it.Sometimes candidates simply don’t know when or why to use it. Or, they will draw a standard flight of stairs and then try to apply the cut stairs to it. Whatever the trouble, here’s the deal.

  • If the view of any part of your stairway is obscured by the stairway above it, use cut stairs.
  • If your entire Stair Design solution can be seen from the Second Floor layer, you don’t need to use cut stairs. Show the entire solution on the Second Floor.

But, you may need to use cut stairs on test day.

Use cut stairs on the same flight. Once on the Ground Floor layer going up, and again on the Second Floor layer going down.

Do this:

With your solution laid out, determine which flight will be drawn using cut stairs.

Determine the length, width, and the number of risers needed in the cut stairs flight, and if necessary, draw a “sketch” rectangle in the location of the flight.

This flight will be drawn in two parts, using only the cut stairs tool. Once on the Floor 1 layer, and again on the Floor 2 layer.

  1. While on the Floor 1 layer, click “draw” and hover over “cut stairs,” then click the cut stairs with the appropriate orientation (going up), for your solution.
  2. In the “Select number of risers” dialogue box, enter the number of risers in the entire flight, 7 for example, and click “OK.”
  3. Draw a rectangle the size of the entire flight by selecting three points. Start by clicking either corner at the bottom of the flight or “sketch” rectangle. The blue text box near the bottom of the screen displays, x: 0’-0” y: 0’-0” as well as the number of risers you specified.
  4. The second point will establish either the length or width of the flight. Move the cursor in the direction of the length of the flight, and the length (x or y) and tread depth are displayed. Move the cursor in the direction of the width of the flight, and the width (x or y) is displayed and the tread depth is “unspecified.” Complete the rectangle by selecting the remaining two points.
  5. Click “set elevation.” Then, click the question mark at either end of the flight, enter the appropriate elevation into the “Set Elevation” dialogue box, and click “OK.” Click the question mark at the opposite end of the flight, enter the appropriate elevation into the “Set Elevation” dialogue box, and click “OK.”

Your Floor 1 cut stairs should look something like this:

Cut Stairs Floor 1

Click the “layers” tool. Select Current Floor number 2 in the “Floor Selection” dialogue box, and click “OK.”

While on Floor 2 layer, click “draw” and hover over “cut stairs,” then click the cut stairs with the appropriate orientation (going down), for your solution. Continue with the same process you used for the Floor 1 layer.

Your Floor 2 cut stairs should look something like this:

Cut Stairs Floor 2


Learn more about the Building Design & Construction Systems division here. 

The Truth About The NCARB Exam Guides

The NCARB Exam Guides for each division are required reading. In each Exam Guide, NCARB provides a sample passing and failing solution to the graphic vignette(s) in that particular division. Unfortunately, candidates often think that these passing solutions are ideal, when in fact they are merely "passing." Some "passing" solutions contain significant errors. What's more, not all of the errors in the failing solutions are noted.

Be sure you have the most recent version of the Exam Guides, effective August, 2015

We have addressed these inaccuracies, omissions, and poor design decisions in the list below. If you have found an error you feel should be added to the list below, please let us know:

Programming Planning & Practice

Site Zoning Vignette:

There is only one "correct" solution to this problem. Errors in the passing solution are addressed in the text below the solution.


Site Planning & Design

Site Grading Vignette:

The sample passing solution violates the requirement that the slope of the regraded portions of the site must be at least 2%. The minimum slope is likely to be along the centerline of a new swale, from point to point. Use sketch lines to trace the centerline of a swale. If the centerline between points is comprised of multiple line segments, add the lengths of the line segments between the points (contour 105' to contour 106', for example). To maintain a 2% minimum slope, the sum of the lengths of the line segments must be <50’.


SG For Blog

To correct this solution, simply move the points of contour line 105’ closer to the points of contour 106’. Then move the points of contour line 104’ closer to the points of contour 105’. This may require the addition of swale points to contour line 103’ to maintain a 50’ maximum between the points of contour lines 103’ and 104’.


Site Design Vignette:

In the passing solution, the sidewalk from the Pedestrian Plaza to the main entrance of the Restaurant crosses the access drive from Bentley Avenue. In my opinion this clearly violates the program requirement for a "continuous walkway system." Although it defies "sound design logic" NCARB says that it is acceptable, "just try not to do it too often." 

The two new Conifer(C) trees at the southeast corner of the parking, and the two new 'C' trees at the northeast corner of the Restaurant are unnecessary. More new 'C' tress than necessary are used to block wind to the Pedestrian Plaza. However, the northwest corner of the Pedestrian Plaza is unprotected from wind.

The Pedestrian Plaza is required to have, "noonday solar access." Because of the shadow created by the Office Tower, the southwest portion of the Pedestrian Plaza does not receive "noonday summer sun."

The Pedestrian Plaza is approximately 1,000 s.f. undersized

The Restaurant is required to have a view of the Pond, which is questionable.

The 'buffer' paving in the center of the parking 'loop' is acceptable but not required by the program.

Please note: In July, 2013, NCARB made some changes to the Site Design program. One of these changes was program item #2, "The Restaurant and Office Tower shall be at least 210 ft apart."

In revising the program, it appears that NCARB neglected to remove the third bullet point under program item #13, "Buildings must be separated by a minimum of 20 ft."

Obviously, if your solution satisfies program item #2, then the third bullet point under program item #13 is satisfied.

In the Failing solution, the Office Tower and the Restaurant are not "at least 210' apart." The Pedestrian Plaza is approximately 1,000 s.f. undersized. The south west portion and the north east corner of the Pedestrian Plaza do not receive noonday summer sun.


Building Design & Construction Systems

Accessibility/Ramp Vignette:

In the passing solution, the west handrail at the bottom of the stair comes dangerously close to reducing in the width of egress. In order to maintain the egress width, the distance between the end of the handrail and the north wall must be at least equal to the clear width between the handrails on the stair, in this case 52". As a potential code violation, this could be a significant error. The 12” extension could be turned 90 degrees to the west to avoid the issue.

At the 3" landing, the east and south guardrails have the required 12" extension. However, NCARB has said that a continuous guardrail is necessary because it's dangerous for a wheelchair descending the ramp, and it's tripping hazard. How one could trip from a +3" landing up and over the guardrail at the upper ramp is unimaginable. Regardless, put a guardrail there. As contradictory as it sounds, NCARB has also said that there is "no penalty for excessive railings on this vignette." But, if you do add an "excessive" railing, it must satisfy all code issues. So be careful.

In the passing and failing solutions, per NCARBs code, the wall-side handrail on the upper ramp from 30" to 25", is unnecessary Because the rise between landings is 6" or less.

In the failing solution, the handrail extension on the north side of the lower ramp reduces the egress width.


Stair Design Vignette:

In the passing solution, the problem is solved without using the cut stair tool. The entire solution is shown on the upper level, which is fine. However, knowing how to use the Cut Stair tool correctly is critical. On test day your solution may require it.


Roof Plan Vignette:

In the passing solution, on the east edge of the upper and lower roof the downspouts are partially visible, but the gutters are cut off.

Candidates often establish the minimum elevation of the low edge of the high roof based on the following: Elevation of the high edge of the low roof (14'-0") plus the clerestory (24") plus the thickness of the upper roof assembly (18") = 17'-6". The 19'-0" roof elevation at the south west corner of the Exhibition Room is higher than the required minimum. Don't let the 19'-0" dimension confuse you. In this instance, using the minimum of 17'-6", while maintaining minimum roof slopes of 6:12,  would require moving the ridge to the east in order to maintain a minimum height of 9'-6" at the east edge of the roof (at face of chimney). 

The roof elevation at the north east corner of the Exhibition Room is obscured by an arrow. It reads 10'-0".

In the failing solution, the upper roof slope is lower than the minimum allowed by program.


Schematic Design

Interior Layout Vignette:

According to the NCARB FAQs, the required Turning Space may overlap the Maneuvering Clearances at Doors, but NOT the door swing or the door itself. In the passing solution, no Turning Space is available in LCR. Although, by changing the furniture layout, the Turning Space fits in the north-east corner.



The west chair at the Table For Four (TFF) in JO is likely inaccessible. 3ft is required between the edge of the table and the wall.

In CR, the copy machine would be better located on the north wall. Then, shift furniture on the south wall to the east. This would eliminate the south-east inaccessible (dead) corner.

In the failing solution, the space behind the secretarial desks is inaccessible.


Building Layout Vignette:

In the passing solution, avoid L-shaped rooms if possible, see GR and LM.

The location of TR between EE and E is not 'sound design logic' and causes L-shape for GR.

The double doors at the Lobby entry are acceptable but only one door is required.

Door at the east end of CO (1st Floor) is unnecessary. Exiting through the east stair is sufficient.

CR has two doors. Only a single door to the CO is required. The door to the east may be an attempt to satisfy the requirement that CR be, "Near Multi-purpose Room."

In the failing solution, the text below 'floor 1' says, "table/chair storage (TS) room does not directly connect to the circulation system as required by the code." However, it does connect to the corridor (CO).

Additionally, TS has two doors. Only a single door to the CO is required. The door in the north wall to MP may be an attempt to satisfy the requirement that TS be, "Near Multi-purpose Room."

Structural Systems

Structural Layout Vignette:

In the passing solution, while the use of bearing walls and lintels is acceptable, many candidates find this problem easier to solve using only steel columns and beams.

In the sample failing solution, Upper Plan, because the "inefficient" joists span in the long dimension, the beam over the clerestory is unnecessary. A joist is sufficient.


Building Systems

Mechanical & Electrical Plan Vignette:

In the passing solution, the rigid duct exiting the supply riser may run straight toward the south wall of the Supply Closet. There is no need for it to jog to the west and then run south along the west wall.

The spacing between the long sides of the 2' x 4' fluorescent light fixtures in the Architect's Office is incorrect.

In the Reception/Secretary, Architect's Office and the Drafting Studio the ceiling grid is off center.

Return-air grilles in the Conference Room and one grille in the Drafting Studio are not supported on three sides.

In the failing solution, the spacing between the long sides of the 2' x 4' fluorescent light fixtures is incorrect in the Architect's Office.

Accent fixtures are too far from the west wall of the Architect's Office.

Rigid ducts exiting the supply riser don't need to jog to the west. They are already parallel to the joists. 

The text below the failing solution says, "The one supply diffuser in the Reception/Secretary area sits directly under the rigid duct but is not connected by flex duct as required." Although one supply diffuser is missing the flex duct, two supply diffusers are shown, neither of which are directly under the rigid duct. 


Construction Documents & Services

Building Section Vignette:

For clarity, the passing and failing solutions are drawn so they do not overlap the floor plans. This is acceptable but takes more time than drawing the solution directly over the plans.

In the passing solution, if we're following "principles of sound design logic," the interior bearing wall should not bear on the 1st floor slab, but directly on a foundation wall below. The slab should stop on one side of the interior foundation wall and continue again on the other side. However, this may be inconsequential. Ceiling to slab dimensions are more critical.

The interstitial spaces are noted, "Correct Depth", but what are they? Here are the numbers;

Laboratory - Slab Thickness = 4" + Joist Depth=32" + Duct Depth=20" + Lignting Depth=8" for a total of 64"

2nd Floor - Slab Thickness = 4" + Joist Depth=24" + Duct Depth=20" + Lignting Depth=8" for a total of 56"

1st Floor - Slab Thickness = 4" + Joist Depth=24" + Duct Depth=24" + Lignting Depth=8" for a total of 60"

 In the failing solution, the interior footing should be shown directly up against the bottom of the slab.


 If you are aware of other issues or have a correction or clarification to this list please let us know at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. .

ARE Multiple Choice Strategy

MCStrategyBlogFrustration with the multiple choice questions is common. There are two main complaints:

1      1. Content from other divisions

2      2. Ambiguous questions/answer choices


1.   Regularly, candidates tell me they received questions that seemed better suited for a different division. This isn’t new, but it can be unsettling. While studying any division, try to think broadly about the NCARB content areas. Lighting, in Site Planning & Design, for example? Seems like a Building Systems question, right? Maybe not. Perhaps you’re lighting a park, or a tennis court.

See SP&D Content Area #4, Materials & Technology, 5. Natural and Artificial Lighting.

Traditionally, multiple choice crossover content has been seen mostly between PPP, CDS, and SPD, while Structural Systems seems to be the most autonomous division. But, as you can see in the example above, it can show up anywhere. 

2.   Whether they’re fresh out of school or have 30 years in the business, candidates sometimes find the questions/answer choices to be ambiguous. They tell me, “None of the answer choices are correct.” Or, “More than one answer choice seems right.” What then? Remember, NCARB is asking you to select, “the best available answer choice.” So, for some reason, one answer choice will be better than the others. Here’s how to narrow it down.


Deconstruct the question for clues to the correct answer. NCARB is not trying to trick you. Their questions are very carefully worded so that one answer choice is the best.

  •         Does the question refer to a historic building or new construction?
  •         Is the question region specific? Is the region hot and dry, humid, etc.?
  •         Does the question refer to a specific phase of a project, Programming, Schematic Design, etc.?
  •         Does the question or answer include relative qualifiers such as generally, sometimes, or usually?
  •         Does the question or answer include absolute qualifiers such as always, at no time, or never?
  •         Improve your odds by trying to eliminate any answer choices that are absurd. If you can eliminate one, you’ve now got a one-in-three chance of guessing correctly.
  •         Make sure the answer choice agrees with the question grammatically.
  •         A long answer choice may be correct because of the elaboration required to make it correct.
  •         Refer to questions you know for clues to answer those you don’t.
  •         If more than one answer choice seems acceptable, choose the one that is most inclusive. Is one answer choice covered by another?

On the ARE you get 1 point for a correctly answered question, and 0 points for an incorrectly answered question. This means that hard questions are worth the same as easy questions. It may be wise to mark a hard question and come back to it later. But don’t leave any questions unanswered!


Learn more about Archiflash Desktop Software here.

Learn more about Archiflash iOS app here.


Solutions - Understanding the Graphic Vignettes of the ARE

solutions small cover

We do our best to ensure that our products contain the most accurate information possible. Short printing runs allow us to address typos, errors or clarifications very quickly. If you believe you have found an error or feel that something needs clarification please Contact Us.


Books ordered prior to September 15, 2014 contain the following error. 

  1. On page 135, the "Maneuvering Clearances At Doors" requirement at the door between WR and SO is insufficient. Although this condition may satisfy the standard NCARB code, the program in the Solutions book requires 24” of wall on the pull side of the door, instead of 18” as in the NCARB program.
  2. As the note on page 135 mentions, the RBO is excessively large, compromising WR and SO. The simple fix in this case is to move the north wall of RBO to the south by about 12”, thereby creating the necessary space in WR and SO.


Books ordered between April 14, and September 12, 2011 contain the following errors.

  1. Page 148. On the Dorf Chart, the "Direct Access" bracket connecting Admin. to Stairs should connect Admin. to Game Room.
  2. Page 77. The 1'-1" landing should be shown 5'-4" wide, not 5'-0". The dimension between the landing and the west wall should be 5'-2" not 5'-6".


Books ordered between August 15th, 2010 and April 13, 2011 contain the following error.

  1. Page 89. 160 x 0.3 per occupant = 46" stair width. 46" should say 48".


Books ordered between May 6th and August 14th, 2010 contain the following errors.

  1. Page 89. At the 3'-0" landing the stair flight on the east wall should have 6 risers, not 7.
  2. Page 129. A lateral file has been omitted between the secretarial desks on the east wall of RBO.
  3. Page 215. The ceiling height of the Library should be 29'-8".


Books ordered prior to May 6th contain the following errors:

  1. Page 33, 34, 35. The tree at the north end of the driveway should be shown slightly to the north, between contour 106 and contour 107.
  2. Page 105. The base drawing should show two windows in the south wall of the Lobby and one window in the south wall of room M (see sample solutions).
  3. Page 111. The dashed line at the south wall of the entry should be shown further south to enclose the exterior portion of the entry.
  4. Page 113. The second note should read, This solution is taller than necessary. The 21 - 9 ridge could be lower and still accommodating the 48 clerestory window. Effort should be made to keep the volume of the solution minimal. The slope at the south side could be steeper to facilitate this.
  5. Page 135. One of the worktables in WR should be a copy machine.

© NALSA, LLC. 1993-2015