Supply and Demand: The push to understand building energy use | EXPLORE→

Building Intercoms Have Come Full Circle

If there was ever a technological symbiosis (besides IoT and anything with a power switch), it would be the telephone and the intercom. The crude, primitive version of both of them could be represented by two cans connected by a piece of string, and while intercoms pre-dated telephones, the invention of the telephone skyrocketed the technological advancement of the intercom. One hundred twenty-seven years later, we’re seeing the same song-and-dance play out with modern intercoms and smartphones.

Ne’er do bell

Fun fact, the term “intercom” is an abbreviation for “intercommunication.” Before this internal communication system, the only way to alert someone within the building was to pull a complex system of ropes and bells. Anyone who’s seen a single episode of Downton Abbey might find the image of a bell board stationed in the servant’s hall familiar. Whenever someone yanked on the rope, the corresponding bell would jingle, and the servant would be alerted. But this system was as problematic as it was straightforward. The bells could only notify staff that they were needed, but not what they were needed for. 

That all changed when Alexander Graham Bell patented the telephone. “It can even be argued that the very first “intercom” was invented when Alexander Graham Bell spoke to Watson in 1876 with those famous words “Watson, come here…I need you!” In any case, most multifamily and commercial buildings had adopted intercom systems as standard by the 1950s. 

One of the first intercom systems was patented by the Kellogg Switchboard and Supply Company in 1894. The system was primarily designed to be used in apartment buildings, a breath of fresh air to property managers of more upscale buildings. Luxury apartments tend to have doormen on staff, just like they did years and years ago. Before intercoms were made available, allowing visitors into the building was cumbersome and time-consuming. After greeting the guest, the doormen would have to lock the visiting guest outside (rude), trek all the way over to the tenant’s apartment, and inquire whether or not the tenant wanted to meet the guest themselves. Then, depending on what the tenant said, the doorman would have to go back and either officially welcome the guest into the building or grin and bear the awkward situation of escorting the unwanted guest out. 

As one can imagine, this method got increasingly inconvenient for occupants and guests as apartment buildings expanded. Instead of having the doorman temporarily banish the guest from the building and then rush up and down the hall to question the tenant, tenants could speak directly with the guests thanks to Kellogg Switchboard and Supply Company’s intercom (that mimicked the design of old-fashioned candlestick telephones). Kellogg’s intercom design had a unique feature which we now associate with intercoms today: the iconic buzzing noise.

How I met your buzzer

As time marched on, the Kellogg intercom looked less and less like a vintage telephone and evolved into the apartment buzzer once the 1950s arrived. Instead of fumbling with a clunky antique with a short chord, tenants only needed to tap and hold a button on the doorway. But, it required a lot of hardware to make that happen. Buzzers needed to be installed in the entryway of the building and the entrance of each resident’s unit to function. 

Intercom hardware became even more challenging in the 1980s when video technology trickled its way into the buzzer/intercom system. Just like regular intercoms, tenants could just press a button to talk to any guests that may appear, but the staticy conversation would be replaced with a FaceTime chat to identify the visitor better. There was a trade-off for that upgrade, though. On top of purchasing a screen and a camera per intercom, video intercoms required electrical wiring throughout the entire building. Plus, the video feed can’t be accessed remotely since video intercoms have a minimal range, so tenants with video intercoms can only see who’s at their door when they are within a few feet of said door.

Phone it in

A lot has changed since the 1980s. Perms and mullets faded into obsolescence while the internet exploded onto the scene, prompting the advent of the smartphone. Just as intercoms eventually incorporated telephone technology, modern intercom systems are foregoing hardware and extensive wiring and are leveraging smartphone usage to their operational advantage instead. 

We have reached the point where you can basically count on almost everyone to have a smartphone in their pocket or purse. The number of current smartphone users is roughly 6.4 billion. “Everyone is walking around with iPhones and Android devices, and they’re all smart, they’re all cloud-based, and they all have a touch screen that lends itself to a magical user experience,” said Aaron Rudenstine, CEO at ButterflyMX, a property technology company that specializes in smartphone-based access control. “So we thought, why not use these devices to create a better user experience for intercoms?” 

Just like old-school intercoms, smart intercoms can function in all sorts of settings: multi-tenant buildings, offices, industrial facilities, etc. The biggest difference is from an operational standpoint. Smart intercoms not only equip tenants and property personnel with more control over who is allowed access to the building, but they also allow the user to unlock the door for their visitor remotely. Furthermore, smart intercoms come especially handy as more deliveries and services find their way to our doorsteps, and the idea of never missing a delivery again or risking a stolen package is certainly an attractive one. 

Thanks to an interesting repeat of history, intercoms aren’t just intercoms anymore. Just as telephones enabled the intercoms of the past to better the tenant experience, with smartphone mobile access, intercoms have evolved into streamlined property management solutions.

Image - Design