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Keeping Up With the Jetsons

I’m driving home from my office in the financial district when my GPS beeps twice, rerouting me off the Henry Hudson Parkway onto Broadway. There’s bad traffic on the highway, the GPS tells me, and I don’t question it because I’ve learned by now that, in such matters, the machines know best.

My wife and I are going to Boca Raton tomorrow for a week’s respite from this never-ending winter. The board has a prospective buyer who has not completed her application package. In the past, I’d be calling the front desk every 30 minutes to see if her pages had arrived. Not anymore. Our co-op has gone paperless. I was one of the board’s last holdouts – what the heck is a “digital signature,” anyway? – but I finally caved. The industry-wide trend towards paperless applications has made boards more organized while simultaneously beefing up security on sensitive material.

Since its launch in April of last year, BoardPackager, a new electronic building due diligence program that helps streamline the application process, has been making life simpler. I talked to founder Jim Brune about it, and he said his company works with property managers for more than 1,000 buildings. By charging $45 per application, his work allows boards to save considerably. “If you have a 300-page board package and it requires seven copies, given all the back and forth with couriers, FedEx, all of these things, it’s 550 to 600 bucks to do all those copies,” Brune says.

He told me that his service uses banking-security protocols to ensure that the documents remain in safe hands. Even better, board members can view applications from any web-enabled device, allowing them to untether themselves from their physical mailboxes. The future is now. I don’t need to wait around for that balky buyer to finish her application. Florida sunshine, here I come.

Car Trek

I pull up to the robotic parking lot in front of the building, and roll my Acura slowly into the entry room. Light and motion sensors analyze the size of my car, adjusting its place on the pallet. I get out and head to the computer kiosk, where I answer the same three questions. Is the car off? (Yes.) Is the car empty? (Yes. Well, empty enough.) Do I have my keys? (Sure. Left jacket pocket.) Then the kiosk spits out a card for me to take and the entry room door slides closed on my vehicle, the system spinning it 180 degrees, and tucking it away with a series of pulleys and sensors.

When the board first discussed it, I didn’t love this idea either. No offense, robots, but I don’t trust you guys and was just getting used to the idea of having you vacuum my floors. But the board treasurer showed me the potential savings, and that changed my tune. Later, I spoke with Sean Coughlin, the chief marketing officer at Automotion, who told me that the automated “rack-and-rail” parking system his company installs works out to between $22,500 and $28,500 per spot, plus roughly $65 monthly per space to cover monitoring and quarterly maintenance. Overall operational costs, Coughlin said, are “about a third of a valet garage.” The biggest source of savings is that, by stacking cars, robotic parking can provide two to three times the parking density of a traditional garage or lot.

“If you have a 100-car need, then either you have the space or you don’t,” Coughlin said. “If you already do have the space, then with us you can make better use of your property. You could do all sorts of things with that [additional] space.”As a result, the robotic parking business is booming. In 2006, Automotion unveiled its first robotic 68-car garage on Baxter Street in Chinatown. Today, the company operates six garages (and about 500 spots) in the Greater New York area, with nine more projects (and 1,800-plus spots) in the area under construction.

Buzz Me In, Scotty

Oh, shoot. I just realized I left my building keys in my car. Thank goodness our condo has a “smart lock,” allowing my smartphone to communicate directly with the front-door buzzer. All I have to do is use the tablet installed by the front door, and I’ll get the equivalent of a video intercom buzz right through the app. From there, I can buzz myself in.

These days, more and more co-ops and condos are relying on smart-lock technology. I spoke with Max Lee, treasurer of a 48-unit co-op in Murray Hill, and he said that his building started looking at smartphone front-door access as their 30-year-old intercom system became woefully expensive to maintain. “It was in need of crazy repairs,” he said. Over the last few years, the co-op spent $2,000 a year fixing it. “The labor always costs a lot, but the parts became so difficult to source because they don’t make them anymore.”

Lee found that updating to another more traditional intercom system would have cost the building at least $20,000. App-based smart locks, by comparison, were available for $1,000 to $6,000, along with a subscription fee, which Lee said more established competitors were offering for upwards of $2,000 annually. Some of their options included ButterflyMX, as well as Carson, a more advanced system that attempts to replicate some of the advantages of a traditional doorman building by offering such features as delivery notifications and secure storage. The co-op decided in the end to serve as the pilot building for Doorport, a start-up that went to market with their product, Arrive, on February 1. By serving as the pilot, Lee’s co-op is paying a $900 fee for their introductory year. “There were a lot of doubts,” Lee said. “Our younger board members wanted a more advanced system, but the older ones were more conservative. We were basically like, ‘It’s cheap enough that if we don’t like it, we can always come back.’ That was how the board was convinced.”

There are benefits to the smart technology that extend beyond the savings, Lee told me. Residents can open the front door without being on the premises, which is useful when receiving a package delivery while away from home. Furthermore, because the technology communicates from front door to smartphone, residents can leave their front door key stashed away and let themselves into the building with their phones. The price for the front-door hardware is $1,150, plus a monthly service fee of $3.85 per unit.

Do Androids Dream of Detected Leaks?

When I get up to the apartment, my wife is cooking dinner. I know I should start packing for our trip, but I’ve had a long day so instead I crack a beer and settle in on the couch to give myself a minute to unwind. Then there’s a knock on the door. It’s the super. “What is it?” I ask, and he says he has come to see about the leak. My wife and I say “What leak?” in unison. “The one beneath the kitchen sink,” he says, “the one the sensors picked up.”

Building-wide leak detection technology requires building-wide connectivity. It’s a costly proposition that property managers are working on right now, Jerry Kestenbaum, founder and CEO of BuildingLink, told me. The company helps run property management hardware and software in more than 1,700 luxury high-rises in Manhattan. Sometimes “a board needs something systematic, across all units,” he said. With building-wide connectivity, sensors will enter the digital age.
According to Kestenbaum, water leaks are the most compelling issue for wireless sensors to address. To properly monitor leaks, sensors need to be installed throughout a building: under kitchen sinks, next to bathtubs, in the walls. That can mean up to 2,000 sensors in a high-rise, each of which needs to be connected and speaking to a centralized system. For affordability, buildings will need to switch from WiFi to Long Range Wide Area Networks (LoRaWAN), whose routers can cover 10 times the area at the same price (about $300 to $400 per router) and pass through metal fire doors in ways that WiFi often can’t. Comcast currently offers LoRaWAN technology in three cities, and it announced plans last summer to roll out the technology in a dozen more.

Once building-wide connectivity becomes affordable, Kestenbaum told me, competition should drop the price for the leak sensors. Currently, they cost $30 to $40 each with companies like SmartHome and Wink. Kestenbaum estimated that boards should soon expect to pay $10,000 for a high-rise building-wide network, $20,000 for full coverage with leak sensors, and an additional $500 to $1,000 in annual monitoring fees. It’s a hefty price, he admitted, but one that offers the potential for enormous savings by giving early notice of leaks. Better news still: once building-wide connectivity is achieved, property managers will be able to use the feature in myriad ways, such as detecting when trash bins are overloaded, or turning off lights in common areas when they’re not in use.

Silence of the Neighbors

Maybe technology will even resolve the never-ending dispute we’ve been having with our neighbor in 10J, an opera baritone who insists on using his living room as a rehearsal studio. He says we’re Philistines who wish to stifle his art. I say that of course “Don Giovanni” is a pinnacle achievement in human expression, but must he really sing it so loudly and so often that I am starting to learn Italian against my will?

Luckily, with the co-op buying into NoiseAware this month, the noise is going to finally stop. The sensors, about the size of a Glade air freshener plug-in, keep track of decibel levels and alert users via email or text when predetermined noise levels have been breached for an extended period of time. NoiseAware’s co-founder and CEO David Krauss originally marketed the sensor for the short-term rental market, so that homeowners could be alerted in the event that their guests were throwing wild, all-night parties. The sensors cost $99 each, with a flat-rate yearly service charge of $99 regardless of number of sensors installed. There are no privacy issues because the sensors don’t record audio, but instead keep a time-stamped record of noise levels, which can be referred to later when resolving a dispute.Krauss told me that the technology can serve as an “arbiter” by keeping records. “Noise disappears as soon as it exists, and therefore it becomes very difficult to deal with noise after the fact,” he said. With NoiseAware, “you can agree on how loud it was and what time it was loud. You’re dealing with something concrete.”

Technology will probably not put an end to noise complaints in New York City co-ops and condos, but it can be a good place to start working toward a resolution. “Most people who believe in smart new technology think that the 100-percent solution is to detect, protect, and resolve issues without lifting a finger,” Krauss said. “Our technology is evolving, but you can’t extricate the human element from living.”
I can’t wait to get to Florida. One whole week without snow or “Don Giovanni.”

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