BHAC Ponders Future of District Guidelines for Intercom Systems

The Beacon Hill Architectural Committee (BHAC) held a subcommittee meeting regarding district guidelines for intercom systems virtually on Monday, Dec. 12.

The subcommittee comprised Commission Chair Mark Kiefer, Vice Chair Arian Allen, and Commissioner Annette Given.

Nick Armata, BHAC staff,  was on hand and discussed intercom options for both single-family and multi-family dwellings, along with “site specific” conditions.

Armata said by establishing new guidelines, applications would be able to move more quickly through the BHAC process without each applicant being required to present their proposal at a monthly public hearing, although the commission would still be reviewing these matters.

Under the new guidelines, some applications would be able to forego a full design review and instead go to an administrative review, said Armata.

The district guidelines currently mandate that “buzzers, key keepers, and intercom panels shall be contained if possible within the entryway of the building, and preferably shall be flush-mounted in the wood trim.”

Intercom panels must now also have brass or bronze faces, said Armata, while lighted or backlit buzzers are prohibited.

Individualized buzzers are also “more appropriate” than large panels per the existing guidelines.

Prior to the subcommittee meeting, Armata said he took a tour or the neighborhood and identified two common options for single-family homes.

The ring/nest video doorbells he observed were simple and reversible, he said, with installation usually involving simple screws.

These doorbells had “small-scale dimensions” ( i.e. around 6.5-by-1.5 inches), and on both of the common models Armata looked at, the LED lights could be dimmed but not turned off.

The doorbells could be angled to a “desired location” to suit different doorway configurations, said Armata, and while the covers vary in color, the stock covers are generally plastic.

At multi-family buildings, Armata said he understands doorbell and intercom systems “can be more of a challenge,” given that they would need to provide access for multiple households at the same location.

Likewise, intercom and buzzer systems are more difficult to install because of their larger size, added Armata.

The systems for multi-family dwellings that Armata observed ranged in size and color, he said.

Armata asked the subcommittee members if it seems likely that systems for muti-family buildings would be ineligible for going directly to an administrative review, just given the wide range of models available and “variables involved.”

Commissioner Given responded that she believes systems for multi-family buildings should be reviewed on a case-by-case basis considering the range in number of dwelling units.

With ever-improving technology, Armata said the subcommittee should be looking at systems with cameras, which are becoming increasingly more commonplace in the neighborhood.

“Site-specific challenges” for installing new systems are often encountered at some of the tenement building built in the early 20th century, according to Armata.

In these instances, door are often “flush with the front, with no bays or vestibules,” said Armata, while some of these homes also have “double-door systems.”

Door sidelights, which range in style, can present another challenge for installing intercom and buzzer systems, said Armata.

Solutions for multi-family buildings that the commission has seen include “brass-box systems” to conceal the panels, said Armata.

One problem with this option  is that the commission doesn’t have the power to mandate that an applicant fix the intercom covers if they break, said Armata.

`Chair Kiefer pointed out that many intercom and buzzer systems in the neighborhood are unapproved, which is something that the commission is actively trying to remedy by citing them as violations. (Armata said there are currently between 15 and 20 outstanding violations regarding non-conforming intercom systems in the district.)

Chair Kiefer added that “one bit of homework” for Armata would be to “establish how bright the nest and ring doorbells are when they’re at their least bright” to gauge their visual impact.

Moreover, Chair Kiefer suggested that the commission could take a similar approach with intercom and buzzer systems as it has with tree guards by establishing “certain standards for design.”

Chair Kiefer added that “nothing with a video screen would be approved.”

Phillips Street resident Rob Whitney cited larger intercom systems with video screens as the most egregious example of violating the district standards, as well as a personal “thorn in [his] side,” since the one across the street from his house has been shining in his window around the clock for the past three years.

“One of the biggest issues for the commission to look at is the fact that there are scores of intercoms being installed without any approval or request for approval and how the commission can deal with that,” said Whitney.

Keeta Gilmore, a Garden Street resident and Beacon Hill Civic Association board member, said she thinks it’s important to distinguish between Ring-type doorbells, which, she said, number in the “hundreds” throughout the district, and other intercom systems.

Richelle Gewertz of the Beacon Hill Civic Association said throughout the district, she had counted 104 existing Ring video doorbell systems, in addition to four others that have been approved (only one of which has been installed), as well as 16 iPad-style intercom systems. She said some other systems might’ve been subsequently installed as well.

Timothy Casavant, one of the trustees of an eight-unit building at 19 Revere St., said they had been trying to get a buzzer intercom system installed there for more than a year, but their efforts have been stymied so far due to regulations in the district.

Casavant said he believes it would be helpful if the commission identified some examples of system models that it would approve and also asked that the commission take into account how costly some models can be.

“It can be really challenging to get any kind of design approved while working with someone who can actually install it,” said Casavant.

For the Thursday, Dec. 15, public monthly hearing of the BHAC, Armata said he would work on coming up with several model options to discuss whether or not they can be approved administratively by the commission without a full design review.

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