Lisa L. Colangelo in Building Operations on May 9, 2017
Back in the day, visiting a friend in an apartment building without a doorman could be a uniquely New York experience. If you were lucky, the arcane buzzer system worked. Otherwise, you had to find a pay phone or yell up to a window and wait for a set of keys to be tossed down.
We’ve come a long way. Many buildings are equipped with virtual doormen – video cameras that enable residents to see and talk with visitors at the front door. And now a growing number of cooperatives and condominiums are opting for cutting-edge technology that allows residents to use their smartphones to see and speak with visitors. They can even buzz them in – whether those residents are on the couch, shopping at the supermarket, or miles away at the office.
“It is certainly convenient to be able to buzz someone in no matter where you are,” says Nicholas Gray, a board member in a 12-unit Harlem condominium who uses the new ButterflyMX system in his building. The system doesn’t replace the face of the building, known as the doorman. “But,” Gray says, “you are paying less.”
The ButterflyMX system features a touch screen by the building entrance with a resident directory, a camera, and a microphone. Residents download an application to their smartphones that allows them to see and hear visitors.
Demand is growing at an unexpected pace, reports Matthew Knoff, chief operating officer at Butterfly. The smartphone-compatible system is now installed in more than 600 buildings across the country, with more than 60,000 users – up from just 40 buildings and 4,000 users less than two years ago. More than 130 of those properties are in New York’s five boroughs.
“A lot of our calls now are people who want to abandon the hard-wired intercom units in their apartments,” says Dan Arnold, vice president of Academy Mailbox, which has been installing intercoms since 1948. “They’re going for systems that only work with smartphones, [transmit] video over smartphones, and have the capability of calling smartphones.”
Smartphone-friendly systems are usually more cost-effective than ones that provide services through an off-site call center, says Nicholas Silvers, a founding partner of Tavros Capital, a company that develops and manages real estate. He says such a virtual doorman costs about $15,000 a year for a 28-unit building. A ButterflyMX installation runs from about $5,000 to $7,000 to install with a monthly charge to the residents of $2.50 per unit. “The residents have really embraced it,” Silvers says. “They love getting a message when a package arrives.”
Intercoms come in all shapes and sizes – ranging from vintage brass mailboxes with push-buttons to sleek touch screens. But experts say they can be grouped into three general categories:
1. Hard-wired. These allow the resident to talk through the intercom and release the door. Some of these include video.
2. Telephone-based. These require the use of a dedicated phone line. Residents can talk and release the door by using their land lines or cell phones. These do not provide video as an option.
3. Smartphone-based. These allow residents to see video and answer on their mobile devices. Some can work with land lines and require an internet connection.
Co-op and condo boards have many factors to weigh when considering whether to upgrade their systems: installation and operating costs, ease of use, and, ultimately, the needs of their shareholders and owners. For example, many smartphone-compatible systems rely on internet cables, often requiring new wiring at the entrance of a building.
“Sometimes it’s really easy,” says Arnold, of Academy Mailbox. “If it’s sheetrock, you can make a few holes and snake it down to the basement. If the walls are marble or granite, that’s a little harder. But nothing is insurmountable.”
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