Buzz Them In

From your couch, the coffee shop, or Cancun, access is easier than ever.

Lisa L. Colangelo

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 video cameras so residents can see who is 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. “You are not replacing a doorman sitting there, but you are paying less.”

A Migration to Video

The ButterflyMX system features a touch screen with a resident directory, a camera, and a microphone. Users 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.”

Intercom systems that integrate with smartphones may cost several thousand dollars to install but are still more affordable than the hard-wired systems, says Michael Mintz, CEO of MD Squared Property Group, which manages about 30 buildings in Manhattan and Brooklyn.

“We developed our panels to be plug and play – using the same three wires as traditional intercom systems,” says Knoff, of ButterflyMX. “The only technical change is to switch the phone line to an ethernet connection. It’s a very cost-effective way to upgrade the amenities of a building.”

Using smartphones for this purpose can also increase data usage and monthly bills, says Bruce Czerwinski of Aiphone, a large manufacturer of intercom systems, who adds that some residents are happier with simpler intercom systems that use video. “There is a migration towards the video because it’s becoming more cost-effective, and more buildings are putting it in,” he notes. “It’s a comfort feature. Some people just keep the audio, but others want video.”

Copper Lines Are Dinosaurs

Boards overseeing buildings that use copper telephone lines for their intercoms may also be pushed to use more modern options – whether they like it or not.

Both AT&T and Verizon will no longer install or maintain copper telephone lines after the year 2020, reports Richard Sedivy, director of marketing and regulatory affairs for DoorKing, which manufactures access control systems such as telephone entry and intercoms, vehicle gates, and parking-control equipment. He says the lines will continue to work, but it may be a challenge to find someone to maintain and repair them.

“When it comes to programming these systems, we’re trying to mix 1960s modem technology with 21st century telecommunications technology, and it’s getting to the point where they are no longer compatible,” says Sedivy. “Building managers and owners need to start looking at the newer technologies available and move away from old-fashioned telephone lines.”

For the time being, though, those lines are required in certain cases. All intercoms installed in New York City must meet the building code, which requires a live-wire link between the front door and the intercom in all apartments 125 feet or more above the street, according to city officials. Knoff says ButterflyMX connects a hard-wired line to phones inside units when required by the building code.

Smartphone-based systems also provide tighter security controls – even if some people are uncomfortable with the idea of their neighbors buzzing in visitors from a remote location. “Every door transaction is recorded with a photo and time/date stamp and is documented in the property management console,” says Knoff.

The new technology has also made it easier – and safer – for residents to handle package deliveries, even when they’re not at home. Many buildings have set aside a package room right next to the front door where buzzed-in messengers can drop off bulky deliveries. “It really strengthens the security of the building, and there is a strong convenience factor,” says Jeremy Kilts, a property manager at WayFinder PM, who works with buildings in Manhattan and Brooklyn. He adds that buildings that have no video intercoms can be especially vulnerable to crimes. “People will hit all the buzzers until someone gets tired of the annoying buzzing sound and lets them in. They were letting package thieves in.”

Meet George Jetson

But not everyone is ready for a Jetsons-like home jam-packed with automated devices. “Co-ops and condos are communities, and they try to be aware of the needs of the shareholders and the unit-owners,” says Mary Ann Rothman, executive director of the Council of New York Cooperatives & Condominiums. “We are making our way slowly into the 21st century, but some shareholders and unit-owners still need to get print copies of information.”

Nonetheless, change is underway – and using smartphones is just the beginning. Mintz, the property manager, says residents and board members should expect to see even more innovations in the future. He points to emerging technologies that will use facial recognition and work with Bluetooth devices and wireless hotspots.

“Intercoms last for a period of time,” Mintz says. “It doesn’t make sense to install an old-school system that costs more to install and maintain. New systems are simply better products and more cost-effective.”