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Super Challenge: Wrench to Wireless

“The job of the superintendent has changed drastically,” says Steven Todorovich, a super who oversees a 120-unit co-op building in Forest Hills, Queens. “You might be able to get away with just a high school diploma but if you are not technologically savvy, your ability to communicate on many different levels will hamper your job.”

Todorovich is not alone in his experience of how a superintendent’s role has evolved through the years. According to several supers and resident managers, staff members now need to know their way around a building with more than just a wrench. Fifteen years into the twenty-first century, a good super has to know how to download and run apps on an iPhone and how to manage his building’s systems and infrastructure from a computer. Technology – especially since the arrival of the smartphone and tablets like the iPad – has changed how things get done.

“The job has become more sophisticated,” explains Todorovich. “If you’re computer illiterate you probably won’t be able to keep your job or get a [new one]. You will either have to take some classes or learn how to operate a computer.”

The leap in technology is not limited to newly constructed state-of-the-art buildings. Neither is technology just about remote-monitored boilers and air-conditioning systems. Whether it’s an e-mailed work order or laundry room lighting that runs on a timer, all buildings now interact with some aspects of technology that aim to serve staff, residents, and management better.

Using a smartphone, Todorovich says he now receives 70 percent of his work orders via e-mail or text message. He also cites a security camera system and top-floor temperature sensors that regulate building heat as examples of how his prewar co-op – built around 1920 – uses technology.

“Phone calls are too time-consuming,” says Todorovich, who says he gets up to thirty e-mails a day about issues relating to his building. “In a text message you get something in one or two sentences whereas you have to spend ten minutes on a phone call to say just one thing.”

 

The Human Factor

Technology isn’t a quick fix for everything, however. Some ever-present issues never go away. “No matter what temperature you set the heat on, people will still complain,” Todorovich says, laughing. “They will complain it is too hot or it is too cold. That is the same for all technology. It doesn’t account for the human factor.”

In Manhattan, Gani Gjonbalaj has been superintendent since 2006 at a state-of-the-art condominium that comes with many bells and whistles. The Lion’s Head, at 121 West 19th Street, was the scene of a headline-making explosion in 2002 and was subsequently gutted and converted from a commercial space into residential condos. The building opened in 2005 and now attracts A-List celebrities.

“The renovation meant that we had the opportunity to put in new systems and new technologies,” says Gjonbalaj, who boasts of the building’s twenty-first century heating systems, cooling tower, security cameras, fire alarms, and video intercom systems that are all monitored or controlled by computer. While those digital cogs turn over behind the scenes, Gjonbalaj says it is a communication platform called BuildingLink that most residents recognize as their building’s technology front line.

“We scan each package that comes in and residents are sent a message saying they have mail, dry cleaning, or UPS,” he explains. “I can message all residents that we’re having water shut down and people who are home or away or at work know. It is very effective.”

An enhanced security add-on offered by BuildingLink is a computerized log of spare apartment keys that requires a fingerprint scan to unlock a storage box. Apartment keys are tracked and their time out of the box – while in the hands of contractors, staff, or residents – is monitored. There are few lost keys and no question marks over who had a key at a specific time.

“In the old days, we didn’t have so much computer usage,” says Gjonbalaj. “We didn’t have cameras where you could monitor things. Now, I can be on vacation and still monitor cameras from my computer or my telephone and see how everything is running.”

Gjonbalaj says building management keeps staff up to date on technology advances but old-fashioned techniques – like talking to other supers and building staff who work in neighborhood buildings – can be helpful as well. Superintendents, it turns out, can be super-competitive.

“Talking to other supers keeps me up to date so I can see what I might want to use and maybe I can gloat and say I have this and you don’t and maybe I can teach you a thing or two,” laughs Gjonbalaj. “For me it is always a challenge. I want to be the best at what I do. We are competitive. Healthy competition is always good.”

 

E-Mailing It

Iris Newsome, board president at the Northridge co-op in Jackson Heights, Queens, reports that her board had been using e-mail to communicate with one another, building management, staff, and residents for “some time.”

E-mail may seem a no-brainer for many boards – and almost prehistoric when compared with systems in place at the Lion’s Head – but its use underlines an important reason for co-ops and condos to adopt technology.

“The main factor is efficiency, and efficiency can lead to cost-savings,” says Newsome, whose 330 owner-occupied apartments are spread over five buildings on a tree-lined block in Queens. Most technology updates occurred at Northridge organically, she adds. The board does not meet to brainstorm new ways to adopt the latest fads or gadgets. “We are motivated to change by a particular incident, a mandate from the government, or if something requires an overhaul or refitting, then we upgrade it,” she says.

Jose Hernandez started at Northridge as a porter in 1988 before taking over as superintendent six years ago. Hernandez says the simplest improvements have proven to be the most effective – especially when it comes to saving money. Changing to energy-efficient light bulbs and installing motion sensors in laundry rooms significantly affected the building’s bottom line.

“I remember checking the annual report and from one year to another, after we changed the lights, we saved about $40,000,” says Hernandez, who keeps on top of technology advances through courses sponsored by the building’s management or his union, 32BJ SEIU. He adds that a technology upgrade doesn’t have to be high-tech. It can be as simple as new paint: “The latest paint we are using doesn’t smell and people don’t even realize we painted their apartment doors.”

User-friendly technology does not mean the end of the superintendent, however. Smartphones and automated boilers help with efficiency but an iPad can’t fix leaks and many residents still want a human touch.

“The superintendent position cannot be outsourced,” says Steven Todorovich. “You cannot do it remotely and you cannot have someone doing it from another country. You still need someone to deal with people day in and day out. You can have a machine running the building but you still need someone on site or to chat with in the elevator. I don’t think you can have a building that is 100 percent self-sufficient. You are still going to need a person there. Whenever there is an incident in the building the first thing people say to me is: ‘I am so glad you are here.’ Even if I can’t do anything about it. You need a human being on the premises – even if it is just to put someone at ease.”

==HABITAT SIDEBAR==

LogCheck

By Matthew Hall

It is the small details that can lead to big problems. Working as an energy efficiency consultant, Matt Brown, an engineer by training, discovered an airport airline facility was losing $4 million and no one knew why.

Mystery solved: Brown discovered that a button on the building’s computerized management system was somehow being disabled. Press a button and save $6 million? Brown knew technology should work more efficiently with buildings.

Fast forward: teaching classes at 32BJ SEIU, the union for supers and their staff, Matt’s twin brother, Mike, learned that many members were performing routine maintenance checks with pen and paper or running through maintenance lists in their head. It was a poor practice that also created communication problems between staff and management. Mike realized that technology could help staff work more efficiently.

The result was LogCheck, an electronic logbook that works as a mobile app on iOS devices (and in web browsers) to streamline routine maintenance tasks, meter readings, and inspections. The prototype was designed by the twins and built in 2012. With more than a million dollars in venture capital investment, it now also serves as a user-friendly communication tool for staff and management.

“In this business, there are a thousand little things and therefore nothing gets done,” says Mike. “It is death by a thousand cuts, unfortunately. People throw their hands up and say, ‘What can I do?’ But there is something they can do. They can set up routines and procedures and have a centralized record-keeping system that keeps everyone on the same page.”

William Waldren, superintendent of a 75-unit co-op on Manhattan’s Upper East Side, beta tested LogCheck and began using the app to keep track of maintenance performed in apartments.

“I was using nothing before,” Waldren says. “In the past, I would just say, ‘I was in your apartment and we may have done this and we may have done that.’ Now, every time the handyman goes into an apartment, he inputs what he did. It helps us to look good – we can see we were there and what was done.”

Waldren says technology streamlines work routines and saves money. “All technology can be helpful and useful if you know how to [work with] it,” he says. “We got a new boiler and I thought I was Johnny Astronaut making adjustments on my computer. There is no more ‘Let me go downstairs and check and wait a few hours.’”

Michael O’Reilly, resident manager of a 30-unit building on the Upper East Side, says LogCheck forces him to address problems before they become major issues. “Things get so busy every day, if I didn’t use something like LogCheck, I would say, ‘I’ll do that later on,’” he says. “This way, you have to do it.”

O’Reilly says he understands why some building staff are hesitant to adopt technology, especially digital tools that monitor workflow. “In some ways, technology makes our job easier,” O’Reilly says. “But it also means you are accessible 24-7, which has its disadvantages. I was on vacation last week and I spent three to four hours of that time on the phone and on e-mails. Unfortunately, the buck stops with me.”

LogCheck co-creator Mike Brown believes software developers looking at the building and construction industries have to be mindful of exactly what end users require when developing products. It’s also important to realize superintendents and maintenance staff will never be replaced by computers. “I am not opposed to automation so long as it is used correctly,” says Brown. “Automation without human interaction causes more problems than it solves. You are not going to ever get rid of the maintenance guys. You can have your toaster start automatically but you have to clean out your crumb drawer. Equipping staff with tools to do their job better is the way technology is heading.”

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