Market ripe for high-rise retrofits
By Kathleen Sibley
Canadians have long had a love affair with residential high rises. It began about 40 years ago, when high-rise towers were erected across urban centres as low-cost housing mostly for new immigrants.
Today, many of those high-rises are coming up for renewal, as cities look for ways to increase their stock of affordable, energy-efficient and neighbourhood-friendly housing. Security upgrades are often part of those projects.
By Kathleen Sibley
The recent condo craze has also fuelled the growth of hundreds of new
high-rise developments, and security is almost always a key selling
feature in new condo construction.
That means plenty of opportunity for today’s tech-savvy security
integrator to sell developers, property managers and condo boards
security systems that can increase efficiency and better protect people
Graeme Brown, director of security and integration at Alberta-based
Contract Security Inc. , cites tailgating, vagrancy and break-ins into
common areas such as laundry rooms and parkades as the biggest security
issues for high-rise residential buildings.
Many new condo buildings are now being designed to accommodate IP-based
access control and video surveillance technologies using products
initially designed for commercial applications, he says. Such products
provide a base security system on the common areas, including access
control and video surveillance cameras, and expand through a bus
communications system up to individual suites, providing each suite
with its own independent security system running off the main panel, he
"It’s basically suite and tenant integration into a complex IP-based
system that enables property management to administer these systems
remotely or onsite," he says. "Each tenant still has autonomous control
of his or her own system."
In older buildings, sometimes, Stuart Armour notes, a relatively small security upgrade can save thousands of dollars.
Armour, who works for Burnaby, B.C,-based firm Affordable Security Systems
recently completed a project on a 20-year-old, 125-suite Burnaby
building, says the client paid his company about $6,000 to retrofit the
existing alarm system for the property manager’s suite and the
recreation area, which included a swimming pool.
Affordable installed a new alarm system with scheduling capabilities
to alarm and disarm automatically, and designed and built an annunciation system that plays a message every 15 minutes notifying
residents it’s time to vacate the pool, starting an hour before the
"They were paying a private guard company to come every night at 11 to
make sure the pool area was vacated and the alarm armed," he explains.
"That was a significant ongoing expense when they were scrutinizing the
The client was able to eliminate that cost – an estimated $15-$20 a
day, or about $500 a month — and within a year, says Armour, the new
system would pay for itself.
Another integrator, Carlo Di Leo, owner of Richmond Hill, Ont.-based
Double Vision Group Inc., helped an Ottawa property management firm
improve security and cut costs by switching from a key-based to a Brivo
IP-based access system on 75 main entrance/exit doors across 10
buildings with about 300 units per building. The project cost the
customer about $200,000 for everything, including the keys and fobs.
Di Leo explains that not only was it expensive to have to re-key
apartment and building entrance doors when a tenant was evicted, it was
also a huge security risk, because anyone could make a copy of the keys.
"Now if they have to kick someone out, they just delete the person from
the system and they’re gone, the card is deactivated," he says.
The system provides automatic backup and data archiving for one year,
and is easier to manage than a server-based system, Di Leo says.
In addition, property management can log in from head office and view
all the doors across the network. They can also give each building its
own permission and access levels, so each building manager can log in
remotely from anywhere and see only the doors and buildings he or she
has access to. All residents, contractors and staff can have cards
with preprogrammed access levels and permissions.
The system can also "tag" certain tenants — such as those who haven’t
paid their rent — and automatically alert management when that person
enters the building. Management can also use it to match a
contractor’s invoice for hours worked with building access records.
Often, high-rise building owners will keep an existing security system
running virtually on duct tape, until it’s apparent that’s no longer
Ed Fitchett, owner of Fitch Surveillance Systems Inc. in Toronto and
Ontario president of CANASA, describes a project his company did last
year on an exclusive Forest Hill complex comprising 40 townhouses, one
14- and one eight-storey tower.
The $200,000, six-week undertaking involved replacing an outdated
CondoPlex system with new Verex suite alarm panels, and installing an
AWID long-range gate entry system, new Panasonic and GE cameras, GE
DVRs and a fully upgraded Enterphone from Viscount. The concierge gatehouse was also
retrofitted for greater efficiency and improved ease of use.
According to Fitchett, the existing system had been designed so that
all the CCTV cameras, in-suite alarm systems, access control components
and other building controls reported to a single platform. "So when the
platform failed, it failed catastrophically," he notes. "It would take
down nearly the entire thing."
The original system ran on a proprietary DOS-based PC with a number of
add-ons. There was one PC for access control, a printer just for the
alarm system and a large directory awkwardly mounted on the wall of the
guardhouse so the concierge could call the residents. There were also
numerous nine-inch monitors in various states of disrepair and some
elderly panning-tilting units.
Once his company started to dismantle the system, it was clear nothing
could be salvaged. The first step, he says, was to replace the in-suite
alarms, which might sound simple enough, but wasn’t.
For one thing, there was no uniformity to the size of the old panels and the surfaces they were mounted on.
"It’s not like a new building," Fitchett says. "Some had glass wall
panels, some had wall paper; some were painted. All the surfaces were
different, and in some cases the keypad was smaller … so in some
cases we had to provide a backing plate."
On top of that, he was unable to obtain any of the original building
schemes to find out where there was conduit. He did find out, though,
that some conduit crossed expansion joints in sections of concrete that
moved, partially destroying cables. "We would find conduits sheared,
disabled or destroyed, but we wouldn’t know until we got into the job."
Once the insuite alarm systems were replaced, the company upgraded the
Enterphone to a new Enterphone 2000, and outfitted the guardhouse with
new monitors and computers. Then it added two long-range car credential
readers, which allow residents to enter and exit the compound and the
underground via a device on the car windshield and two pole-mounted
Standing out among the rest
Ed Pauk, security account executive at Chubb Security Systems in
Mississauga, Ont., says one way condo developers seek to differentiate
their developments from others is by providing the amenities and
features buyers are looking for. In today’s market, where single women
are an increasingly large percentage of the buying market, security is
one of those differentiators, he says.
"Security is always a concern because you have lot of single-parent
families (buying condos), so developers will put on their equity sheet
that there are cameras in the underground parking areas, panic assist
systems and other features such as telephone entry to let guests in,"
Panic assist systems function either via hardwired buttons on an
intercom system available on every level of the underground parking or
via a radio frequency button on the resident’s underground access fob.
If the system is properly designed, once that button is activated the
concierge or security guard at the front desk will know who hit the
button and where, he says.
Retrofitting old buildings is always more difficult than working with
new construction where a system has been planned for, but even if a
building is relatively new, it can be a challenge to incorporate new
security equipment, Pauk adds.
"With new construction all the cabling is done in the slab," he says.
"It becomes very difficult when you do a new project and then a new
condo board is incorporated and in one or two years the board wants to
incorporate new cameras. A lot of time developers will leave off a
camera viewing the concierge desk, and 9 times out of 10, the board of
directors wants it."
The problem, he explains, is that "you can’t get from point A to B
easily — if there’s a dropped ceiling, it’s no problem, but if there’s
a solid ceiling, you have to use Panduit or conduit and they won’t like
"So I will also caution developers that it’s a good idea to at least
plumb for it so in the future you can just add it. Doing it after the
fact costs 10 times more."
Di Leo agrees, and adds integrators need to be able to show prospective
customers not only the initial costs of implementing a new security
system, but the ongoing maintenance costs. That’s a challenge in the
high-rise residential market where property managers know they may not
be managing a building in five years but want to be able to demonstrate
the biggest bang for their security buck today, he notes.