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The Doorman Who Wasn’t There

An invisible doorman grows in Brooklyn.

He came one day to a co-op in Ditmas Park – and the reason for his arrival has to do with a front-door entry system that may ring a few bells for many New Yorkers.

A 114-unit property, the building had depended on its intercom for years. It was cheaper than having an actual doorman on hand and it worked just fine...for some units. For others? The system was haywire. Beyond erratic – sometimes working and sometimes not – some residents also complained that when visitors announced their arrival the intercom would fill their apartments with an excruciating buzz that would often get stuck.

“It was awful and costing the building a ton of money, because a repair person had to come almost once a week to fix it,” recalls Jessica Dowshen, a resident and former board member.

Fed up with bad service, high repair bills, and bad wiring, the board voted to install a new system. After researching options, it turned out the building, built in 1961, was about to get a full 21st-century upgrade. Instead of an intercom hardwired to each unit, the board voted to install a system where visitors punched a resident’s ID number into the front door panel. The system then calls the unit-owner’s designated phone number (it could be their home phone or their cell).

Instead of an irritating buzz, residents now had a personalized and efficient system that actually saved the building money. “Ultimately, we discovered that to rewire the entire building would cost us around $70,000,” Dowshen explains. “The new telephone system would cost us just $7,000. You do the math and make a choice. This system can go to any telephone number so the door can even be answered from overseas. I love that I can let UPS in the building when I’m not there.”

Door to Door

While a big advance in technology, in 2015, the Ditmas Park front door solution is as simple as it gets (the manufacturer, Doorking, sells a variety of entry systems). In the past five years, kicked along by rapid and dramatic advances in smartphone technology and the evolution of the internet, today’s intercom goes beyond being a glorified door-knocker. In fact, in some New York City buildings, your intercom system can even cook you dinner.

Colin Foster, president of Virtual Doorman, a company that – as the name suggests – provides buildings with remotely controlled doorman services, says ever-evolving technology means residents now expect more than a simple intercom system.

“What is incredible about technology is that year after year, it changes a lot less than we expect,” Foster says. “But in decade increments, technology changes in ways that we can never imagine. In 2000, when we started our company, people couldn’t even wrap their heads around remotely opening doors. It sounded crazy. But today people think anything is possible.”

For a visitor or delivery person, Virtual Doorman operates like any standard camera-operated intercom system – except if you don’t respond to the call, a live operator at the company’s operations headquarters will answer on your behalf and take prearranged action. This can be as simple as taking a message, accepting a package, or even issuing a virtual door key via a smartphone.

Virtual Doorman also comes with an optional “concierge” service that provides residents with access to concerts tickets and sporting events, restaurant reservations, and entry to nightclubs, as well as a catering service that can organize a party at your apartment while you are at work, or arrange for a simple dinner to be ready on the table when a resident returns home. Access to the apartment for caterers is, of course, secured through Virtual Doorman.

Butterfly Effect

Like Virtual Doorman, ButterflyMX is another New York-based service that harnesses the power of so-called “cloud computing” to open doors and provide associated services.

Cloud computing is a term used to describe internet-based services often accessed on your computer or via a smartphone app. Cloud-based technology thrives in professional environments with mobile workforces and is kicked along with the evolution of smartphones and tablets. Companies like Google and Microsoft all offer cloud-based software for individuals and businesses.

“The whole ‘ah-ha moment’ for us was [when we realized] that we were living in the age of the iPhone,” says Cyrus Claffey, president of ButterflyMX, founded four years ago. “The iPad had just come out and we thought that if you can get YouTube on your smartphone then why the heck do I need to get off my couch to open the door? I should be able to get a video to my iPad to see the front of my building.”

ButterflyMX launched in four buildings across the country in very different markets: suburban New Jersey, a high-rise in Boston’s Back Bay, a property in downtown Los Angeles, and an apartment building in Manhattan’s Chelsea neighborhood.

“The real estate industry is traditionally lagging in technology adoption because it is about location, location, location,” says Claffey. “Because of that there has never been a particular reason to adopt much technology. People put in lighting controls or sound systems but most developers don’t need to – and don’t – put in a lot of technology.”

Claffey said the big leap in contemporary building infrastructure is the transition from older cabling intended for cable television to category five and six cabling and fiber for computers and the Internet.

“That helps facilitate more cloud-based services and more things like Netflix where you are streaming video at home,” Claffey says. “It opens up a whole new world of possibilities.”

Which is where ButterflyMX comes in, literally. Through a smartphone app, residents can view who is at the door no matter where they are (even out of the country), open the door for visitors and deliveries, and receive text messages about visitors, deliveries, and services. Property managers can access a web page to send messages, easily update resident databases, and monitor information on who is accessing the building – and when.

Cost Conscious

Both systems provide competitive economic alternatives to on-site doormen. Virtual Doorman’s more high-end solutions (there are three levels of service) cost under $2,000 for installation plus up to $30 per apartment per month. ButterflyMX hardware costs between $2,500 and $5,500 to install and charges $2.50 per apartment per month.

And what if some residents don’t own smartphones or are not tech-savvy? Alternatives typically include the same service wired into a landline phone for which ButterflyMX will also provide a handset if required.

Both services piggyback off a building’s already-installed internet, which leads to the question: what if the internet goes down? It’s what happens already. For full-service to resume, residents must wait until the internet connection to the building reboots. But no one is ever locked out of – or locked into – the building.

Security also proposes a yin-yang position. Claffey boasts that every “door release transaction” can be documented, providing insights for building management on who uses the door and when.

“Every single transaction on the screen is documented,” says Claffey. “The most important part of that is you know which resident authorized the transaction. You can run reports on who is the most active resident. A good property manager will be able to identify who is up to no good and why. Or it will help them be able to identify trends.”

While such a level of scrutiny offers some advantages – is an apartment being used as an Airbnb rental? – it also may raise red flags for residents who believe the forensic records create privacy concerns.

Still, back in Brooklyn, there are no more stuck buzzers or missed package deliveries because a resident is in the laundry room or has stepped out to run an errand.

“I don’t remember much opposition to the new system,” says Jessica Dowshen, the Ditmas Park co-op shareholder. “People only complained a little, but that was because people like to complain whenever change happens.”


3/21/2019 Postscript:  Please contact Butterfly MX for updates as the pricing noted above is outdated.

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