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Case Study Research Guide

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Code Innovations – Case Study Research Guide (Draft as of 02/05/2013)

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.

 

Code Innovations 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:  Review Project Assignment

Review the project data sheet and take note of any required fields which are empty, most importantly the "permitting / approval process" paragraph which may have been obtained from the approving jurisdiction / official.  Your first task is to complete all required fields and identify the sources of information you will need to complete them.  Contact the Principal Investigator 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:  Initial research

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

  • Basic Research:  Conduct web and/or library research to learn about the innovation, the designer or builder, and the project itself.  Gain an understanding of the context, purpose and value of the innovation, as well as details on how it was applied and expected to perform to meet codes and standards.
  • Public Records Request:  Visit or write to the Permit Center in the approving jurisdiction for this project; obtain 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 fields on the project data sheet with information from documents thus obtained.  See Public Records Request Project Task Guide for more details on this process.
  • Code Research:  Identify all Applicable Codes and Standards which apply to that innovation.  Access this information from the page Codes & Standards Organizations, and utilize the public eCodes found there.

 

Step 3: Contact the Owner, Builder(s)

Contact the Project Owner, General Contractor, Architect, or others major players involved with the project to get more details on the Innovation. Get to the person who was committed to the project and won its approval.  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 for a phone interview, meeting or site visit to inform the case study.  You’ll need to be determined and flexible as you approach these folks to get what you need.  See Builder Script #1 and Interview Etiquette below.

Find out who else has information you need (such as designers, subcontractors, suppliers, manufacturers etc) and pursue those leads to gather supporting info and documents such as certifications, specifications, engineering, calculations, modeling, test data, or evaluation reports.

Step 4: Site Visit and Interview

Your goal with 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 as clear and focused as possible.  Drill for details.  Any additional supporting information is gathered, such as documents, photographs, video footage*; 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: Interview with Approving Official

The interview with the Approving Official occurs only after you've gathered as much information as possible about the innovation, and prepared a list of questions to help you be clear, efficient and effective in the short time you will have.  This interview should be primarily focused on why the project didn't conform to prescriptive code and what was the alternative path to compliance.  Confirm which codes and standards applied in this case, and how they were interpreted by the code official. We want to know what information led the building official to eventually approve the projects, and what they learned along the way.

This should only take 20-30 minutes per case.  Ask for any remaining documents which were used to support approval of the innovation.  The code official may ask or allow you to look through the file on the project.

Step 6:  Draft your Case Study

The Case Study comes together with the completion of the Permitting Process, and Narrative sections (See Case Study Format Template). The Permitting Process section of the study details the “road map” to compliance for this project / innovation, based directly on information from the owner / builder and the approving official.  The Narrative section contains the most information detailing how the innovation was applied, design considerations, cost-benefit analysis, and sources for education and information on the subject.  Above all else the narrative explains the reason the project was done as it was, and the positive value proposition in terms of social, environmental and economic criteria.

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 instructors, who will check it for meeting the basic requirements of the case study format.  Before it can be published, the Case Study must be put through our Informant Review Process.  The Approving Official, owner, builder(s) or other project contributors will be asked to check it for accuracy and omissions. 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 reviewed* and is then indexed by category and subcategory, sometimes appearing in multiple categories. There is not yet a protocol for updating or revisiting cases, however any projects still under construction at publication will require a later visit to document the level of success of the project.

* 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 codes are always playing "catch-up", and there will always be non-prescriptive designs, materials & technology the code doesn't apply to.  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?

Thanks.

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]

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 Evergreen State College working on a Case Study for the Code Innovations Database.  [short description of the database].  Do you have a moment?

Thanks.  

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?

 

Code Official Interview Etiquette

Please be aware that City and County Building Officials 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 Clear
    • State your objectives at the beginning of the interview
    • Ask and agree how much time you have for the interview
    • At the end, ask for a follow-up conversation - for the inevitable question you forgot - and to review your draft case study
  • 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 Evergreen 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.

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