what A.R.E. you willing to do 

i still have the original

I may be the oldest of my group of fellow bloggers (or awfully close), as it is hard to believe I took the Architectural Registration Exam over twenty-two years ago, but the details of that week are still fresh in my mind. Furthermore, if you are an Emerging Professional on the fence about the test, you won’t find any solace here other than a single-minded person who will insist you take the exam – and soon. I’ll be your biggest cheerleader and share your joy when you pass.

Before I share my story, let me ask you this – how much do you want to be an architect? That’s the key phrase; that’s what it boils down to in any discussion about the A.R.E. For those of you reading this, who have been sane enough to elect another career, bless you, I can only apologize for the rest of this post. (Maybe you’ll appreciate your architect more once you hire her). It’s no secret that I’ve shared on blogs, podcasts and countless conversations, that I’ve always wanted to be an architect. I must preface that by saying that “always” started around the time I was eleven years old, but now that I’m 50, that’s close to always.

the original wooden desk

Somewhere around 1979, I’ll guess my twelfth birthday, my mother found a wooden drafting table and gave it to me as a gift after seeing my interest in drawing houses, perspective drawings (yes, I figured that out by reading books…remember books?) and other technical drawings. There was no internet, nor computers so I have no idea where she found it. It came in a box, or a series of boxes, and I assembled the myriad of pieces together myself, not knowing where the knack to build things ever originated, not having a father growing up or someone to teach these types of skills. I had a single-mindedness about things and if I wanted to do it, I did it, even if I made mistakes along the way or broke something. I could see the pieces, there were screws and wingnuts involved and the rest just came together. There were no nifty IKEA like diagrams in those days with weird shaped people supposedly sharing construction methods with some cryptic, but universal language. I wasn’t sure exactly what an architect was or what one did, but I still wanted to be one. So, it was settled. I dragged an old dining room chair into my room and I was set.

Today is about my story, so I promise not to regurgitate my past drivel about licensure and my noticeably strong opinion about how every architectural graduate should become licensed, but I still don’t understand why someone who has made it through school – alive – would even consider not taking the exam, even if they go on to other things. I’ve heard the excuses; I’m not sold, but I can accept my opinion is not commonly shared and I’m not up to debate today.


This desk I mentioned was a place I could be found most nights, as I spent so much time of my childhood in my room. I did my homework on it, I spent endless hours drawing on it – not always drafting but drawing anything and everything while my turntable spun the original vinyl records. Looking back at the drawings I’ve shared in these images, I’m not sure I was that good. Nevertheless, I started architectural school with my beloved desk in 1986 (I spent a previous year at Cedarville College taking general education classes before I transferred to Kent State in 1986). I can even remember learning about a thing called a parallel rule (Mayline to some of you) that didn’t require the user to hold onto the T-square all the time. What a cool invention. I bought one and yes, installed it myself. I can’t remember if that was before or after I started college.

i still have a few ancient drawings c.1979-1984

Did I ask how much do you want to be an architect?

Anyone who has made it through architecture school can attest that it may be the hardest thing they’ve ever done, at least before they turned twenty-five years old. I can’t remember what caused my sister to think I was unhappy with my desk, but somewhere around my third year at Kent, she bought me a new desk. This one was white laminate with black metal legs – quite modern and considerably more stable than that other one. No offense, Mum, but I’m going to use the new desk. It’s lighter and easier to transport home for the summer. I still have that desk my sister bought, but I removed the legs I still use it to this day as a table top desk after I added fold down legs and a handle to it. This desk ushered in a new era, but the usefulness of the original desk had not yet concluded.

Lee 1988-02 Apartment
still had the desk in spring 1988

In 1995, four years after graduation, I had finally completed my IDP requirements. I was a bit irritated that I missed finishing them in 1994 – my three-year goal, but somehow the credits were a bit shy and the exam was only offered ONCE a year – yes ONCE a year in those days. I would have to wait until the next year to take the test. During that busy year, I completed the IDP requirements, left the job I started upon graduation and was working at an office in downtown Pittsburgh. My paperwork (yes paper) was complete, I scheduled the exam and was ready to go in late June 1995. The strict daily study routine for the past six or eight months was over and it was time to face this giant. Notice how quickly I had moved things along; remember my original question?

My wife and I had not even been married for three years and here I go to spend a week away from her alone in a hotel room in Pittsburgh. I can even remember it was the Ramada over on Sixth or Centre Avenue, perhaps it’s a Doubletree or something like that now. I just remember it was behind the USX Tower. There I was, sequestered in a hotel for four nights so I could walk to the former D.L. Convention Center each morning to take the A.R.E and then return to study alone. It was a four-day test; the first three days offered eight-hour, multiple choice tests with those weird fill-in-the-circle sheets where the questions were purposely arcane with answers like:

  1. all the above
  2. none of the above
  3. both a and b
  4. something else you’ll never guess or,
  5. why not shoot yourself now and get it over with?

So much for thinking multiple choice was easy.


On the last day, there was the design exam – the Queen Mother of all exams. Twelve straight hours of design and drafting and no ability to leave except to go the bathroom. I had my art-bin with all my drafting tools and inside was the lunch and dinner my wife packed for me. Did I mention we couldn’t leave? In those days everything one would need had to be brought in as the only thing they provided was the vellum sheets to take the exam. Don’t screw them up, there were no other ones – seriously. The test was broken down into a few sections of vignettes, but the bulk of it was still a building design. Those crafty test makers thought it would be fun to introduce a multi-level gut-renovation for a witty change my year instead of a blank site for a new building. Who does that? Fortunately, I had a plan, I had a schedule down to the minute for how I would make it through, leaving an hour of course for checking my work. I’ll have to share the rest of that story another time.

Are you thinking that to draft our work, we needed a drafting board? They only had 8’ tables scattered about the vast room where we spent the day alone in a group of test takers. Guess what drafting board I took with me? The wooden legs never got reattached after my sister brought in the new model, so that wooden drafting board with a parallel rule still attached was a mere drafting desk top that could be transported with the handle I attached. There I sat for twelve long focused hours taking the very test that would be my Super Bowl moment; the very test that was the gate to the goal I had established over eighteen years earlier. The decision was clear, I would take the A.R.E on my very first drafting table – the one I had learned to develop my drafting and drawing skills on as a kid. It was like an old friend coming with me through a challenging time. I passed all sections first time. Now I am an architect; it really wasn’t that easy I must say.

i still have it…in my basement

So, I ask you again, how much do you want to be an architect? What are you willing to do to pass it?

If you liked that story, here are a series of other stories my friends wrote today. I hope you find them refreshing and discover a variety of other ways of looking at this issue.

Matthew Stanfield – FiELD9: architecture (@FiELD9arch)
What is the Big Deal about the ARE?

Lora Teagarden – L² Design, LLC (@L2DesignLLC)
Take the architect registration exam, already

Eric T. Faulkner – Rock Talk (@wishingrockhome)
ARE – The Turnstile

Michele Grace Hottel – Michele Grace Hottel, Architect (@mghottel)
the architect registration exam

Brian Paletz – The Emerging Architect (@bpaletz)
I forget

Drew Paul Bell – Drew Paul Bell (@DrewPaulBell)
The Architecture Registration Exam

Jeffrey Pelletier – Board & Vellum (@boardandvellum)
What is the Benefit of Becoming a Licensed Architect?

Kyu Young Kim – J&K Atelier (@sokokyu)
Every Architect’s Agony

Nisha Kandiah – ArchiDragon (@ArchiDragon)
To do or not to do ?

Keith Palma – Architect’s Trace (@cogitatedesign)
Test or Task

Jim Mehaffey – Yeoman Architect (@jamesmehaffey)
Passing the Test

Ilaria Marani – Creative Aptitude (@creaptitude)
How to Become a Licensed Architect in Italy

Jane Vorbrodt – Kuno Architecture (@janevorbrodt)
Seven Years of Highlighters and Post-it Notes


what A.R.E. you willing to do 

18 thoughts on “what A.R.E. you willing to do 

  1. cmarvin508 says:

    I’m 60, and my licensing story would make you cry. Two years ago, I had to restart the exam. I lost my grandfather status. Two down, five to go. I started testing in 1989.

    1. That’s unfortunate. If the cause was something beyond your control, you should share your story. All the best on finishing them and it’s refreshing to hear someone at 60 not giving up. More should be like that.

  2. In high school, I was lucky enough to 1. have an architectural drafting class and 2. have an articulating drafting arm. That same high school teacher gifted me my parallel bar at graduation and a number of triangles, all of which I still have. It sounds like you would agree, but I remember them with fondness. Perhaps it’s like having a child…you forget the pain afterward?

    1. OK, that’s totally geeky, but cool to me. I have model building tools from 9th grade – I won’t part with them and if they are “borrowed” by others in my house, I go looking for them to return. When I went away to school, everyone complained about the cost of buying all these drafting and model building tools. I was like – dude – I’ve had these since I was eleven, where have you been? I didn’t have many friends.

    2. Michele says:

      NO, no, it is I who am the eldest!!!!
      Nice to see that you have the pics of the board Lee! I know we have two of them in the garage somewhere, along with two MacIntosh computers adn the backpack carrier for one!
      Thanks for your contribution!

      1. Well, my mother taught me never to ask a lady’s age, so there’s that. My first experience with CAD was around 1988 or 1989 on one of those tiny all in one Mac computers. We thought it was cool.

  3. Great story Lee. I will never forget taking the design exam. I overlooked not bringing a back-up T-square or spare parts for my parallel bar. So when it snapped off my board while walking in the door, it was anxiety plus time. No one around me could help me out. They felt so sorry for me; their eyes said it all. I had no other choice but to take the exam free hand. So I whipped out my canary sketch paper, pens and scale and went to work. I still remember all the shaking “no way” heads. Haha.

    1. Wow, what a horrible feeling to have going in. However, looking back, freehand may be the way to go – not bogged down with the precision of hand drafting – fluid. I’ll share my nose bleed story some day.

  4. While my story is a bit different, i think we shared a similar singlemindedness towards becoming licensed. Though mine did not come till later in my life. But once i had set my mind to it, i wasted no time in accomplishing it.

    Taking the exam over four days does sound grueling. It makes the pace i at which i took the exams seem leisurely.

  5. Robert E. Moore says:

    Took my examine June 1986 it was a once a year test then. My wife was 7 1/2 months pregnant with our first child and we had just moved into our first house. Needless to say that I probably had not studied enough to expect to pass the first time. Twelve parts, forty hours examine which culminated with the 12 hour Building Design the final day. After couple days I thought no way I had passed the PM&E sections, wait until next year.
    Final day examine I was physically spent before I started. The state of NC separated the participates, first timers on one floor, re-takers on the other floor(I always equated that to Purgatory somehow, or maybe Dante’s different levels of Hell). Halfway through the time one of the best designers from my college class gets up and leaves. I’m thinking “Oh Lord I don’t even have my design finalized how will I ever finish let alone pass”. (Turns out he gave up because he wasn’t satisfied with his solution). Well I did at least finish.
    Actually surprised my wife by driving home 3 1/2 hours after the examine. I told her that I would study as many hours as necessary but I would pass it next year. I would not put myself through that agony but one more time.
    End of September a thick package arrives and my wife now with baby calls me at work. I tell her to wait until I’m home to open it. She opens it anyway, reads me the results and we both start to scream. Not sure if I was happier that I was now an architect or that I wouldn’t have to take the examine again.

    1. I love the Purgatory and Dante’s Inferno reference. I danced when I opened my results, but it never said “congratulations” it just had PASS next to each section. I inferred I pass all parts first time until I got notice a few days later from NCARB.

      1. Robert E. Moore says:

        Yeah, that’s one thing I remember is that it never said I passed the entire exam. It only listed the grades for each part and said if you successfully passed all the divisions send us a check for your certificate, if not see you next year.

        Good news is only cost $15 for the certificate.

  6. jivorb says:

    You are a fabulous storyteller, Lee Calisti! I love how the tale of the table is woven through from beginning to end. The thought of the table as it travels through childhood and right into the exam hall.
    Crazy that you could carry in your own furniture…It must have been more stressful to have to draw by hand at the exam. But the experience would be more personal than drafting on a computer. I found it disturbing that a computer graded our design work. BTW, I screwed up the link to my #Architalks post this month. I see that it is not in your list. If you care to read, it is here. http://kunoarchitecture.com/index.php/architalks-highlighters-and-post-it-notes/

    1. Thank you, that’s quite nice of you to say that. I had no frame of reference, besides architectural school, so I never questioned the experience. It seems everyone who has taken it over a period of time tells of miserable furniture and lighting like your story. Read Evan Troxel’s book on the A.R.E. (https://twitter.com/etroxel) where he shares a similar bad experience. I think if it were unicorns and rainbows, it would not mean as much. The rite of passage needs to have some difficulty in it. BTW, I did fix my post and updated it with your link. It was broken last night.

  7. Mark Epling says:

    Your story is a great one to share. I am 64 having achieved professional Architect’s registration in 1982. I also would encourage any architectural graduate to pursue professional registration as the preparation including the internship (apprenticeship) reveals to the graduate an understanding of how the architectural education can be put to work. Wishing you all the best.

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