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Case Study Research Guide

V1.0 – Draft as of 04/15/2014

Table Contents

  • General Overview
  • Case Studies: The Research Process
    • Step 1: Case Study Self-Assignment
    • Step 2: Applicable Codes Worksheet
    • Step 3: Interview other Informants
    • Step 4: Collect Supporting Documents
    • Step 5: Describe Permitting Process
    • Step 6: Draft your Case Study
    • Step 7: Submit for Review
    • Step 8: Publish!
  • Understanding Why

General Overview

A Code Innovation is defined as:
A successfully permitted green building, high-performance, and other innovative construction techniques, materials and technologies for which a local jurisdiction has not previously established a prescriptive path. A code innovation exhibits a positive value proposition in terms of environmental, social and economic effectiveness and sustainability.

The three types of Innovations are defined as:

  • A Design Strategy or Construction Technique – This is an action or way of building that has specific definable elements that contribute to the performance characteristics and conditions required for approval.
  • A Product or Material – These are physical building supplies with definable performance characteristics that contribute to a positive value proposition.
  • An Equipment or Technology– This is a specific item with a definable performance characteristic that contributes to a positive value proposition.

Case Studies: The Process

Once a project is identified which uses design strategy, technology, or material which meets the guidelines for a “Code Innovation” (see definition, page 1), the case study will be assigned to a volunteer researcher or research team, and the process begins.

Step 1: Project Self-Assignment

Assign yourself a project by going to the website www.CodeInnovations.org and submitting your case study using the “What’s Your Innovation” box/portlet to the “Project Short Form.” Quickly fill in as many of the requested fields as possible, and click Submit. Please type “Self-Assignment: I will write my own case study” into the field called “Remarks.” It doesn’t matter if some of the requested fields are empty, we’ll have an opportunity to fill those in subsequent steps. The Principal Investigator or other project staff will respond to confirm your case study assignment

For clarification or assistance if needed. Review the Case Study Methodology, including Case Study Format – Annotated Template, Informant Review Process and Legal Disclaimers.

Step 2: Applicable Codes Worksheet and other Basic Research

Gather as much information as possible about the project and specific innovation from publicly available sources.

  • Document Applicable Code: Identify all Applicable Codes and Standards which were applied to your innovation, and complete the Applicable Codes Worksheet for your innovation. Identify and document online or published sources containing the specific code/standard language which were applied to this project. Utilize the public eCodes as a starting point.
  • Basic Research: Catalogue 3 or more sources of general information which pertain to the project or innovation which are available on the Internet
  • Project Permit and other Official Documents: Obtain and upload the actual permit, meeting minutes, supporting documents and submittals for the project related to the innovation. Get all contact information for the approving officials. Fill in any unfilled Project Identifier fields in the Case Study template with information from documents thus obtained. See Public Records Review Project Task Guide for more details on this process.

Step 3: Interview other Informants

Contact the Project Owner, General Contractor, Architect, Approving Official(s) or other major players involved with the project and let them know you are doing the case study. Ask them for more details on the Innovation and how it was approved which you may not have. Tell them what information you are looking for and find out what will be the easiest way for them to help you get it.

Set an appointment and conduct a phone interview, meeting or site visit to gather more information for the case study. The goal of the Site Visit and Interview is to learn from the owner and/or builder why a project was chosen, how it was designed or built, and what was required to get the permit. Be prepared, be as clear and focused as possible. Drill for details. Ask any informants if they are willing to be listed as a contact on the case study when we publish it to the website; what information they want or don’t want listed.

Step 4: Collect Supporting Documents

Collect and upload to the Google Drive any supporting documents such as permits, certifications, specifications, engineering, calculations, modeling, test data, or evaluation reports, etc. See PTG Supporting Documents for a complete list of possible document types. Gather any additional supporting information gathered, such as documents, photographs, video footage, history on the project. This is also the time to dig deeper for additional information about the owners’ or builders’ motivation for innovating, the cost-benefit analysis and value proposition.

Step 5: Describe the Permitting Process

Gather and summarize as much information as possible about the innovation and how it was permitted by drafting 1-3 paragraphs describing the permitting process. Then, contact the Approving Official(s) who permitted the project, and ask for their perspective on what was required, how the project was approved. Prepare questions to ask, and/or read excerpts from your draft description to see if they agree with your assessment. When talking with the approving officials, focus on why the project did or didn’t conform to prescriptive code and what was the alternative path to compliance that made it unique. If needed, confirm which codes and standards applied in this case, how they were interpreted, what specifically led to approval and what lessons were learned along the way.

Ask for any documents, photos, or contacts which were used to support approval of the innovation.

Step 6: Draft your Case Study

Follow the Case Study Annotated Template to draft the Case Study, completing as many of the required data fields and narrative sections as possible. Please use the Case Study Editing Checklist for a final review and to cross reference with the Template; you may also look at published case studies as examples. The Permitting Process Section is the heart of the case study, as it summarizes the “road map” to compliance for this particular innovation, based directly on information from the project owner, builder and/or the approving official. The Project Details section goes into greater depth about the permitting process and how it relates to the rest of the project. The Narrative section contains additional information detailing how the innovation was applied, design considerations, cost-benefit analysis, and sources for education and information on the subject. The narrative is the opportunity to further explain the motivations behind the project, and the positive value proposition in terms of social, environmental and economic benefits.

Write the Abstract last. It will provide a complete overview of the project including the type of building and green features, the specific innovation, as well as a sentence on the permitting process, and perhaps an example of a lesson learned. This is the text used in the data collection used for searching and scanning case studies – use as many keywords as possible.

Step 7: Submit for Review

Turn in your draft case study to your instructor(or direct to the Principal Investigator), who will check that it conforms with the format template, and offer any comments and/or edit for accuracy, completeness and style. Before it can be published, the Case Study must be put through our Informant Review Process, in which the Approving Official, owner, builder(s) or other project contributors will be asked to check it for accuracy and omissions, and comment back. The Principal Investigator may also require an external technical or “peer review” from an uninterested subject matter expert as needed.

Step 8: Publish!

A finalized Case Study is published once it has been approved by the Principal Investigator. It is published either by program staff or the original researcher by transferring data from the final document to the publishing interface on our website at www.CodeInnovations.org. This includes uploading supporting documents, photos and hyperlinks referenced in the draft case study, and entering names and contact information of key project contributors who give their permission to share the info.* Contributing Authors are credited two places on the published website.

Once published, visitors to the Database will be able to search by keyword, or using our robust Advanced Search engine, so careful attention is given to the categories, subcategories, and other searchable fields at the time of publishing. Case studies may be periodically updated / refreshed by future researchers (with PI approval and Informant Review) so that more recent data & resources pertaining the project results, compliance and/or performance can be incorporated.

*Be sure to get appropriate permission to use any supporting documentation: written permission to publish project photos, or for information that was not included in the public record submittal, signed waiver for photo or interview subject (see guild waiver).

Understanding Why

The success of this process is measured along a two-way street. Code officials and builders may not immediately grasp the purpose of our project, what information we are seeking, and why it is important. If you can be successful in helping them understand, it will be much easier to get the information you need to complete your task. Commit this purpose to memory, and stick to it throughout the process; don’t get sidetracked by interesting aspects of a project which do not relate to the permitting process.

The purpose of the database is to provide a basic mechanism for sharing information about successfully permitted green and high-performance building innovations, which were approved through non-prescriptive alternative compliance paths. The goal of the case study is to describe how a particular project achieved compliance so this information can be used by others to help navigate their own path to compliance more efficiently and effectively.

You can explain: “Building technology is constantly changing, and innovation drives that change forward. The codes are there to ensure safe, healthy buildings which we also want, but people are always striving to do better. As a result there will always be non-prescriptive designs, materials & technology. By studying and describing these cases we hope to help reduce what has been a significant barrier to sustainable alternatives – the added time and cost of alternative compliance.”

Your case study must strive to provide a detailed, thorough and accurate representation of the process from application to approval of a permit. Although every project is different, each case study contains complete details on applicable codes & standards, approval requirements and permitting process. It may be used to help other code officials more easily understand how a technology can meet typical approval requirements, and provide a precedent they can use to approve it.

  • From a builder’s perspective, we’re looking for desired, innovative techniques, products, systems that that might present a permitting challenge to you or to others.
  • From a building official’s perspective, we’re looking for innovations that help meet public health, safety and environmental sustainability goals, which were permitted through a non-prescriptive compliance path.

Ultimately we want the case study to be something builders, suppliers and owners can be proud of, and also something the code officials can refer to and believe in.

Script #1: Calling the Builder or Owner

Hi, this is ________, I’m calling on behalf of the Northwest EcoBuilding Guild, I’m a student / volunteer researcher working on a Case Study for the Code Innovations Database. [short project description]. Do you have a moment?

We heard about your project [project title & specific innovation] and would like to do a case study on how you were able to gain approval from the [jurisdiction] building department to build it. By including your project in the database and sharing information, we hope to reduce the time and cost of getting future permits for you and others.

[Most builders are anxious to show off their innovations, while a few may have concerns about releasing proprietary information. Assure both types we will only publish public information, or other info only with permission of the owner, and you get a chance to review and give feedback on what we write.]

Are you willing to participate in our case study? It involves gathering information from the permit and other documents related to your project – we’ll learn about the innovation and research the related code requirements & standards. Once we’re prepared, we’ll request an interview with you – as little as 30 minutes on the phone, or an on-site visit and video interview! It ends with a draft case study and a round of review like I mentioned before. We’ll do our part if you do yours. Are you in?


Okay, if I can get the permit and some supporting documents you submitted to the [jurisdiction], I’ll get started on my research, which will go fast. Can you send me a copy of these documents? [establish delivery mechanism] OR… I already got a copy of certain documents but I’m still looking for …

Who else should I talk to, in order to get information about this project and what was required to gain approval? If not you, who was the person who really got behind this project and won the permit? [take names and numbers]

Are you willing to be listed as a contact in the case study, when we publish it to the website? If so, what information would you like to have listed?

Where can I find out more information about this innovation? [write down citations and links]

When can we set a time for an 30-minute interview or on-site visit? [Set Appointment]

So to confirm, Myself and ______ will meet you at ______, on _______ at _______ [get address or directions]. Is that right? Should we do anything specific to prepare?

Script#2: For calling code officials

Hi, this is ________, I’m calling on behalf of the Northwest EcoBuilding Guild, I’m a student researcher at [name of your college/university] working on a Case Study for the Code Innovations Database. [short description of the database]. Do you have a moment?


I’m calling about the _____ project, we’d like to try to understand how that project was permitted, specifically the ____________________________ (specific innovation).

We’ve gathered all the available information on the project from the builder and other public sources, and have it organized to go over with you. I’d like to set up a time in the next week when we could do a short interview with you and/or [other staff] for our case study. We want to understand the permit you issued on this project [Set appointment].

Based on the information we’ve gathered, can you confirm a few things we were wondering about? [Ask one or two questions to clarify or confirm missing details]

Who else in your jurisdiction or other jurisdictions should we talk to about the approval requirements of this project? [take names and numbers]

Before our meeting I will prepare a list of questions and send it to you in advance in case you need to do anything to prepare.

So to confirm, Myself and ______ will meet you at ______, on _______ at _______. Is that right? Should we do anything specific to prepare?

Supporting Documents:

When meeting with Informants – by phone or in person, always request specific supporting documentation you would like them to bring to the meeting.

  • Copies of the Permit(s) & Inspection Reports
  • Minutes of meeting(s) with Approving Officials
  • Owner or Architect’s Design
  • Environmental Studies (SEPA Checklist, FONSI)
  • Manufacturers specifications (MSDS, TDS)
  • Evaluation Reports by Code Organizations
  • Testing data, Product Specific Study
  • Product Specific Studies
  • Product certifications
  • Construction Design Drawings
  • Engineering or calculations showing the project complied with applicable code sections
  • Code Language from another jurisdiction
  • Photos

Interview Etiquette
Please be aware that City and County Building Officials, not to mention Architects and Builders, are extremely busy people. The recent recession and budget cuts has meant less staff to do the complex work of permitting construction projects. We must be respectful of their time and always be prepared to ensure efficient and effective communications. Here are some pointers to help you succeed.

  • Be Confident
    • Code Officials want to participate, to help you learn and succeed
    • Know your purpose, stick to it
    • Don’t be afraid to ask seemingly stupid questions
  • Be prepared
    • Learn all you can about applicable codes, approval requirements and the project itself
    • Clearly articulate the information you are seeking, have questions prepared
  • Be an active listener
    • Take notes
    • Paraphrase what you heard, ask for confirmation and clarification
    • Dig for details, follow-up on leads, ask for documentation
  • Be organized
    • Set and keep your appointments. Reconfirm specific date, time and location at the end of every communication
    • Choose a reliable member of your team to be the main point of contact, have all communications through that person.
    • Double-check your work for completeness and accurate before pressing “send”
  • Be Flexible
    • Have something else to do if the person gets called away or runs late
    • Pursue a new lead if you hit a dead end
  • Be Professional
    • Remember you are representing your college and the EcoBuilding Guild

The same rules apply to interviews with project owners, designers and builders – they are also busy professionals who we need to respect and appreciate. As business people, they are often willing to be the “champion” for an innovation and with a little encouragement may have much to contribute the case study.