Titans Talk: The Impact of ASEAN collaboration
Industry heavyweights discuss the effect of ASEAN Mutual Recognition Arrangements
September 7, 2017
Written by Judith Torres
Photographed by Reau Gutierrez of Studio 100
As expected, Jun Palafox is early for our 11:00 AM appointment. He doesn’t say it, but it’s clear he’s keen to start the roundtable discussion at once. We are just as eager to ask how his firm is responding to the MRA signed by the Philippines with the rest of ASEAN, which takes effect in 2015. In minutes, Willy Coscolluela, Edward Co Tan and Jojo Tolentino arrive. Including Palafox, the four are principals of the busiest architectural firms in the country. Edwin Barcia, EVP/Chief Operating Officer of medium-sized and nimble T. I. Vasquez Architects & Planners, Inc., joins them.
Jonathan Gan, another architecture biggie, is out of the country, yet very much present because of his earlier contribution to the discussion. Weeks before the round table, he wrote down his thoughts on the MRA’s impacts on Filipino architects (published in our previous issue, Vol. 2, 2014); even doing spadework for BluPrint by providing data on ASEAN’s construction outlook from 2013 to 2018.
The mood in the room is upbeat even when the conversation delves into subjects that cause men of weaker constitutions to go cross-eyed with frustration. After showing them some statistics, we ask the men to do a SWOT—Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities, Threats—analysis of the Filipino architect in the context of borderless practice within ASEAN.
While discussing taxes—a hot button subject, Meloy Casas, principal of one of the most productive and prestigious Filipino design firms today, walks in. Palafox quips: “O, Meloy! I just announced that you’re the number one taxpayer!” The room bursts into laughter. “This guy is very patriotic!”
It is impossible to keep the SWOT discussion neatly in sequence, because as Tan says, “Our weakness is our competitor’s strength.” Our competitor’s strengths threaten us, and opportunities often answer our weaknesses. So the discussion ping pongs from opportunity to weakness, strength and threat, with the outspoken architects sharing personal experiences, and demanding more information on the specific mechanics of the MRA.
Coscolluela: Sana pareho ang regulation when we work there and they work here. Kaya nga mutual, diba? The requirements that Singapore has for foreigners working there would be good to adopt for when [other ASEAN architects] come here. Maganda talaga ang technology transfer but when some foreign architects come here, they want to do everything, even duplicating what the local architect does. Will we be on equal footing ba?
—Adopt win-win and learning attitudes
Tolentino: The collaboration between foreigners and locals happens everywhere. It’s not exclusive to us. The question is, what is a good win-win situation? We should learn from these relationships. We shouldn’t see this as something negative. Many progressive countries have gone through this situation, you know—Hong Kong, Singapore, Dubai, at some point in their history, their markets were dominated by foreign architects. Ang maganda lang doon, the locals took up the challenge of learning and there came a point when their locals were as good and even exceeded the capabilities of the foreigners. We need to develop that attitude: “Okay, we will learn from you, but we will not be working with you forever.” And the knowledge that came from them, we can also export.
—Adopt work-sharing matrices that help ensure technology transfer
Palafox: I’m willing to share my matrix with international consultants and Filipino architects and engineers. From the outset, maybe 50-50 during the concept, conceptual design stage. Then, as we go to schematic, the portion of the Filipino architect gets lighter, 60-40. In the design development stage, working drawings, almost 100 percent Filipino. Para makita nila na sa conceptual stage, may input ang Pilipino. Kailangan yun because they don’t know the culture, the surrounding traffic situation, that it’s liable to flooding, o baka on top of a fault line!
—Adjust our approach to co-working with foreigners
Tolentino: This is the time to think of how we can do it better. What adjustments can we do in our relationships, the way we approach co-working with the foreigners so that it becomes a really fruitful relationship?
—Push for equal billing in design credits
Palafox: One is equal billing in brochures. In the market place, imported is still better than local. In fact, I get better commissions abroad than in my own country.
Tolentino: That’s true.
—No guidelines for taxation available yet
Palafox: Taxation. BIR is running after some of us here. But they don’t run after the foreigners because they get paid in their own country by the developers. So the Filipino architect is second-class citizen in his own country. It should be equal taxation. It’s really discriminatory in terms of fees. The PRC [Professional Regulatory Commission] should address that.
Casas: Yes, I’m interested in the mechanics of the fees. How do we charge when we have projects outside? Do we get taxed in the country where we’re going to practice? Is there withholding tax?
BluPrint: How did it you do it when you were abroad?
—Information needed re compensation, payment, protection against non-paying clients
Casas: For example, in Thailand, the clients there gave us conditions. One, I have to open a company there. Two, I have to be paid in Thai Baht. Is that how it will be with the MRA? And their currency exchange was not good then. I couldn’t do anything with the Baht, so I’d go to a bank, change it to US Dollars or Hong Kong Dollars—because we were based in Hong Kong then—and just put it in my pocket and leave. Will there be conditions like that when we start practicing abroad? There are so many other things that I don’t read in the write-ups pa, e. Like, how do we charge, if we get a project in Vietnam, what’s our protection? There were times there that we got burned. They’d get our design, pay us a nominal down payment and then suddenly disappear.
Tan: Another issue is how do we collect fees?
—Downpayment before flying out
Casas: Well, the best is we are paid here, you know, money down before we go out. There are times that the developers or clients are based here also and they have projects in Thailand. Then they bring us—their own architects. But, more often than not we have to work with local architects. When we start working within the MRA, will we be working with a local firm? I feel that we should.
BluPrint: You have two choices. A Filipino ASEAN architect who is authorized to work by the Professional Regulatory Authority in the host country—the counterpart our PRC BoA—can work either independently or in collaboration with a local architect. It’s pretty straightforward. They look at your practical experience, which should be not less than ten years, and your work, which should be significant architectural works—siempre, hindi naman pwedeng dog houses lang, diba. [Laughter]
Casas: Okay, so you don’t’ have to go back to their school and take their exam? Because I’m too old for that!
BluPrint: You’ll probably want to work with a local just the same, who’s intimately familiar with their codes.
—Work with the locals: they know the codes, and it’s good will
Casas: Yes. It’s better for good will and camaraderie to work with local firms.
BluPrint: Good point.
—Opportunity to work closer to home
—Adaptable: Easy to deal with, empathetic
—Leverage the historic connection of RP with other ASEAN countries
Barcia: Working with others is our strength. After all of these decades of the Philippine diaspora, we’ve been exporting our talents abroad. They’ve entered all sectors of the economy. [With ASEAN integration], they can take advantage of the knowledge they learned abroad and work closer to home. Culturally, we’re very easily adaptable.
Coscolluela: Madaling kausap.
Barcia: Foreigners say that we’re the most empathetic; we’re good at empathizing with others. And once upon a time we were ahead of the others, so we did a lot of work in these countries. When Thailand was setting its industries up, the Filipinos were there. So in that regard, it’s time to dig up that history and use it to our best advantage.
BluPrint: What other strengths do we have?
—Strength in numbers? We have the most architects
Tolentino: We have the biggest talent pool in the ASEAN region.
Looking at the numbers, it’s clear the Philippines stands to benefit most from the ASEAN MRA. As of 2012, out of the 44,500 architects that ASEAN has produced, 31,500 or 7 out of 10 are Filipino. On the other hand, the Philippines’ construction spending in the same year, which amounted to US$ 13.1 Billion, is less than 5% of the total construction spending of Indonesia, Thailand, Singapore, Malaysia, Vietnam and the Philippines combined, or US$ 283.8 Billion. Our construction spending is 70% of Vietnam’s, 64% of Singapore’s, 43% of Thailand’s, and only 7% of Indonesia’s staggering US$ 183.8 Billion.
—Our workers have experience from all around the world
—Artistic, good at rendering, presentations and model making
—Other countries can outsource these requirements to Filipinos
Barcia: Given the type of project we’re doing here, we could call back a Filipino architect from the Middle East to help us on that project. Then after that project, they go back.
Coscolluela: Yeah, you can call them back to work here; they can visit their families, magbakasyon, tapos trabaho muna dito. Meron yan, meron yan! And then also presentation drawings, renderings, high-tech walk-throughs and everything, we are very advanced, and very inexpensive compared to having a presentation done in Singapore. It can be done here, you know, outsourced to Filipinos! Even China, magaling din sila, pero mas mahal sa atin.
Tolentino: Yes, artistic eye, good rendering and presentation skills. Our closest competitor would be Thailand.
Casas: It’s not only rendering, Willy, but also model making.
BluPrint: Ah, we’ll need to up our game because the technology for 3D printing might overtake us.
—Pinoys weak in business management
Tolentino: Comment lang, ano. Foreign employers rate Filipino architects as very good in the artistic side, but the overall preparation of our architects is lacking compared to other countries. When you compare, for example, a graduate from a Singapore university versus a graduate from a Philippine university, there’s a big difference in terms of business, management skills and confidence level. Hong Kong University graduates are good at business and governance too. Their curriculum is heavily management oriented… That tells us that there might be a need for us to review our curriculum to prepare our students for international practice.
—Other countries are superior in business and governance; have higher educational standards
Palafox: My batch mates in UST who went to Canada had to go back to school for two more years, because the Canadians looked at the 5-year course of architecture here, compared it theirs and said our graduates need two more years. Me, I had to go to graduate school to be able to practice. In Singapore, you have to take a Master’s degree as well.
Tolentino: Education is one of the biggest issues why it’s difficult for us to compete in the region—
Tan: It’s the root of everything.
—Revisit architecture curriculum and benchmark versus progressive countries
Tolentino: —but when we talk about what’s lacking in our practice and in the industry, there’s very little mention of the curriculum or the educational system. It’s about time that we take this seriously and benchmark versus Singaporean and other progressive countries, and do better.
Coscolluela: I agree we need to revisit our curriculum because architecture schools don’t teach business management or accounting, and you need business skills to succeed.
—Learn to market our services
Palafox: Harvard Graduate School of Design has professors from the business school of management and the school of governance. Teachers in Harvard like Art Gensler, the founder of Gensler, and Eugene Kohn of Kohn Pedersen, both taught the art and science of marketing your services, and yet in the UAP, in our code of ethics, it’s prohibited.
Coscolluela: Bawal ‘yan, you’re not supposed to advertise. We have laws that are obsolete.
—The competition can market their services here
Palafox: Look at US magazines; you see the names of Jerde Partnership, SOM, HOK, nakabandera ang pangalan nila!
Barcia: Jun, you can’t market yourself here, but you can do it abroad.
Palafox: But the foreigners can market their services here. May billboard pa nga. Dapat equal treatment.
Tan: Definitely there will be technology transfer, even if they try to hide—even without the physical documents, the concepts, ideas, whether we like it or not we’ll be working with each other. Even the management style and business orientation, we will learn from them.
—Competitors comfortable with money matters
Palafox: That’s true! We learn a lot from them! Some foreign consultants, before they open their mouth, they call their accounting first: “Nagbayad na ba to?” [Laughter]
Tan: Tama! That’s true! That’s true!
BluPrint: So are you doing the same thing now? [Laughter]
Tan: Not exactly, but eventually! [Laughter]
Palafox: End of the month na, naghahabol ka ng payroll, di ka pala nakakasingil!
BluPrint: That’s not a problem with you guys, is it?
—Technology and knowledge transfer
Tolentino: May tiga-singil kami! [Laughter] I think the integration will force us to do it that way. To better manage our firms and look at the business side of the practice. Knowledge transfer isn’t limited to technology, but includes the practice as a whole, and bringing it to international standards.
One of the MRA requirements for eligibility as an ASEAN Architect is compliance with the Continuing Professional Development (CPD) policy of the Country of Origin. But we have none, because Philippine law does not mandate CPD. Without such a mandate, the Professional Regulatory Commission may not require architects to pursue CPD, and enforce national standards for CPD.
The United Architects of the Philippines (UAP), for its part, tries “one way or another” to address the need for sustained professional development by requiring architects to earn 20 participation points annually, in order to acquire a certificate of good standing, a requisite for renewal of license. However, points are acquired by attending such events as national (10 points), district (5 points) and chapter meetings (1 point), convention exhibits (5 points), or participating in UAP-organized competitions (5 points), among other activities that by international standards do not qualify as CPD.
Because the UAP is a private corporation, it “has the right to adopt rules prescribing the mode and manner by which membership can be obtained or maintained,” and may not be directed by government to upgrade its standards.
For one’s own development, Palafox recommends joining international organizations to acquire a global outlook and exposure to world standards, something he and the others are doing already: Palafox is a member of the American Institute of Architects and the Council on Tall Buildings and Urban Habitat, just as Casas and Tolentino are, while Tan is a member of the Singapore Institute of Architects.
—Keep on learning; join international organizations, study
—Weak in delivery at presentations, public speaking
Palafox: Even if CPD is not required, you should do it. Until last year, I was enrolled.
Casas: One weakness is presentation delivery skills and speaking in front of other people.
Palafox: Yan ang wala sa school!
Tolentino: In our firm, we do role-playing.
Palafox: Right. Be the mayor, be the environmentalist, be the client.
—Too sensitive; easily hurt; indirect
Barcia: What about emotional? It’s a very Filipino trait. Emotional in the sense that we take things personally that sometimes affects the way we work with others.
Palafox: I’ve managed foreigners; I can be direct with them, but with Filipinos, iba, kailangan mas maingat.
Tan: Onion-skinned…not like our politicians! [Laughter]
—Lack of government support
Barcia: Lack of government support. Malaking bagay when you have a government that sees the problem coming and they come up with a survival package. “Okay, guys, let’s meet and talk about this, and this is what we suggest you can do, these are the niches that you could get into,” you know, pero wala. Para tayong orphan, I haven’t felt that sort of guidance.
Tan: You’re on your own.
—The Philippines is not a good brand
Palafox: It’s different among businessmen. In the Makati Business Club and Management Association of the Philippines, we are preparing the business community. I think our biggest challenge actually is the Philippines is not a good brand. If we locate our office in Singapore, our perceived value will go up. Even among our employees. They said if I set up an office in Singapore, they’d rather work in Singapore than in Makati.
—Create a Filipino brand
Tolentino: That’s the challenge before us. How do we create that brand? Of course, it’s not enough to just mouth that brand, no.
BluPrint: What is your brand?
Tolentino: We are a Philippine-based firm that offers international quality design.
Palafox: International, interdisciplinary and integrated design.
Coscolluela: Of course, green! We have a track record in green buildings
Tan: Construction and space efficiency, and eventually, sustainability.
Barcia: Strong in design and strong interpersonal relationships with clients to identify their needs.
Casas: Professional service, meeting deadlines and budget—that’s very important to the clients—and of course, international experience.
Over lunch, the architects go into a long discussion on the quality of our board exams, and the changes they have undergone. Tolentino expresses doubt about the exams’ effectiveness in screening would-be architects. “The question is: Are we registering better quality architects?” he presses. Palafox claims that the passing rate in his day was only 20%—less than half of today’s 50%. A higher passing rate does not mean that board exams have gotten easier or less effective, but all the men agree that our qualification methods should be reviewed.
Tan, Casas, Barcia and Palafox debate on the value of drawing, and express dissatisfaction and misgivings about the seemingly diminishing facility of architecture graduates today to sketch concepts and scaled plans by hand. Tan explains the PRC’s decision to remove drawing from the board exam as practical and in keeping with international practice. The others eventually agree (some reluctantly) that the burden of ensuring that graduates know how to draw and design should rest with the architecture schools. The idea is proposed that perhaps certain skills are being neglected because students (and schools) know the boards won’t test them on those skills.
—Get industry feedback re skill deficiencies and reform curricula and board exams to address the shortcomings
Barcia: The best thing would be for government institutions, CHED, PRC BoA, and all the schools to meet and talk. “Do we all agree that there’s a problem?” If they agree there’s a problem, then identify the shortcomings, getting feedback from the industry—for example, sinabi na ni Meloy at ni Jun eto ang kulang natin—and then do corrective measures.
Tan: It’s a clear and present danger.
—Many teachers not active practitioners
Casas: There’s one thing I’d like to bring up. I think most of the professors now lack in actual experience. If they don’t practice, what can they share? I’m very concerned about that. Dati kasi, mga professors namin, mga practitioner talaga.
BluPrint: Right, like Mapua, Arguelles and Concio. But using that logic, you could say the same of the non-practicing architects in the bodies you just mentioned. If they don’t have significant practical experience, how can they serve the profession meaningfully?
Casas: Exactly, exactly.
BluPrint: Perhaps veteran architects can be prevailed upon to serve.
Casas: You know, I was never into that. I never considered teaching. But now, when I look at the young kids today, nakakahinayang eh. Kailangan nila ng mga teacher na may experience na pwedeng-ishare. That needs to be addressed. That’s why I keep saying to students, pumunta na lang kayo sa opisina! Marami kayong matututunan doon e! Don’t be in a hurry to take the board. Really do the number of hours required. Get your feet wet. Do fieldwork. That’s baptism by fire, going to the jobsite and seeing just how things are done. What can compare with that?
Palafox: We are all sufferers of losing our own people. We’re also beneficiaries of the foreign experts coming here to work with us. So we’re both sufferers and beneficiaries, and then some of us, if not all of us, have done work elsewhere in the world, so we’re in a better position—as you said, some leaders of our professional organizations or the ones regulating with us may not even have designed a building—to collectively identify areas to improve. Not individually, kasi mahirap ang individual, there’s less pressure to change. Glaringly, Malaysia has 31 ASEAN architects, Singapore 39, Philippines zero. Why don’t we have a single ASEAN Architect? I am an APEC architect but not ASEAN. So there’s a disconnect somewhere there, a big gap. BluPrint may want to research why.
BluPrint: Well, why?
Palafox: We don’t even know.
Tolentino: The expectation is that the UAP should be doing something, because they are the professional body that’s supposed to be looking at these things. The impression among practicing architects is nobody is thinking of how to prepare for the integration.
As we get to coffee and dessert, it’s clear that Singapore is not the biggest threat that Filipinos should gird for, but a worthy benchmark. Casas, Tolentino and Tan are vocal about our strongest competitors being our best teachers. Casas cites Hong Kong and Japan, even though they aren’t part of ASEAN. Palafox says that is only right, because eventually, “They’re looking towards ASEAN plus 6—China, India, Japan, Korea, Australia and New Zealand.”
As it turns out, the biggest threat comes from within.
Tan: Regionalism, disunity, crab mentality.
—Disunity, intramurals within the local industry
Tolentino: It’s the intramurals within the local industry.
Palafox. Good point.
BluPrint: You mean, architect versus architect, and architect versus engineer, etcetera?
Coscolluela: Even amongst architects. Nagsisiraan sila sa fee structure, undercharging. It’s common.
Palafox: There are sky-divers and scuba divers. [Laughter]
Tan: Unfair competition.
—Companies that use pirated software
Palafox: For example. All of my more than 400 computer programs are 100 percent licensed and cost 2,000 to 10,000 dollars each. We just bought 70 Revit programs. How can I compete with firms that buy pirated programs at 2 dollars per?
Coscolluela: Meron pa nga diyan, halos libre ang services.
BluPrint: That’s not part of free enterprise?
Palafox: No. There’s a certain band. We’re supposed to be a regulated profession.
Barcia: Sometimes it takes a threat to unify a people; it’s human nature.
Palafox: The forces from without will unify us from within!
—Few engineers are up to speed with the latest processes and software
Casas: Speaking of Revit [an application specifically for Building Information Modeling] …right now, it is becoming the international standard. We’re really pushing engineers—structural, mechanical, electrical—to also migrate to Revit, so we will be compatible with each other because we’re having difficulty in communication.
Barcia: Same here.
Casas: We’re pushing them, pero hindi pa rin e. So they convert the files into their program, then have to convert it back.
Barcia: If we’re going ASEAN, you can’t present a complete picture because your engineers aren’t up to speed with your firm, when it should be across the board.
Tan: You know what we do? Whatever the engineers do, we insert the work ourselves in the Revit model!
BluPrint: That sounds tedious and redundant! What do they use?
Barcia: 2D, most of them now.
BluPrint: I asked a while ago if you were worried about any firms in particular. Are there any you’re looking forward to working with?
Tolentino: Those from Singapore.
—Technology and knowledge transfer
Casas: Japan would be very, very good to work with because both our countries experience severe earthquakes and typhoons. As a matter of fact, we have started doing that. Working with Japanese consultants, like Tasei Corporation, they’re very excited, asking us about our experiences, and we picking their brains on structural design, the technology isolating the foundation of buildings in case of earthquake… even their disaster relief and temporary structures, they’re very strong in that. Malayong malayo pa tayo. That’s why it’s good to know what they’re doing. Because we do a lot of high rises, we’re also eager to learn from them the latest on vertical transportation. Some are being put into practice; some are still theory, like double-decker elevators, two elevators using the same shaft, acting independently. Ano kaya ang mangyayagri kapag nawalan ng kuryente? Magbabanggaan ba yung dalawa or what? Yung ganung klaseng technology that is brought about by the lack of space—alam mo naman ang Japan.
Sa Singapore…wala silang lindol, e. Wala silang typhoon. Ibang-iba ang kanilang structural system sa atin e. They can do whatever they want there. Kakainggit nga e, no? Hong Kong, same thing. They can really extend their projects to the max.
Tan: The way I see it, what we can learn from Singapore is documentation.
BluPrint: How about green design? That’s what they say they’re eager to export.
Casas: I was just about to say that. Green design, but theirs is very different from ours.
Tan: Mas technology driven ang sa kanila, tayo mas passive, mas vernacular. Teka, bakit hindi kasama ang mga lawyer sa professions na sakop ng MRA?
Casas: Oo nga. We need the contracts to go through our lawyers. They too have to know international law, yeah.
Tan: Dapat kasama din ang interior designer.
Barcia: Nilaglag tayo nga mga lawyer! [Laughter]
Tan: And what do they mean by MRA on Engineering Services? What discipline of engineering? Structural? Mechanical? Electrical? Civil? Napaka-broad naman niyan.
BluPrint: We’ll check.
[Note: The ASEAN MRA says: “Engineering Services refers to the activities covered under Central Product Classification (CPC) Code 8672 of the Provisional CPC of the United Nations.” The UN CPC breaks down engineering services into: Advisory and consultative engineering services, services for the construction of foundations and building structures; for mechanical and electrical installations for buildings; for the construction of civil engineering works; for industrial processes and production; other engineering services during the construction and installation phase; Geological, geophysical and other scientific prospecting services; Subsurface surveying services; Surface surveying services; and Map making services.]
The construction outlook of ASEAN for 2014 to 2018 is bracing. Our side of the sphere is where the world’s building industry will see the most action, and the Land of Promise is Indonesia. Its public and business sectors have been driving the country’s construction spending—US$ 73.5 and 70.3 Billion respectively in 2012, amounts forecast to grow by 4.5% within the next four to five years. The significance of the infrastructure and non-residential/commercial sectors driving the spending are their bigger scale and budget than residential projects.
However, it is also worth noting that by 2018, Indonesia’s population of 266 million will continue enjoying an economic boom, their GDP growing by 35% from US$1.28 Trillion in 2013 to 1.99 Trillion in 2018. With residential construction spending forecast to reach US$ 26.4 Billion, and their per capita 22% higher than the Philippines, chances are greater Filipino architects will find residential projects in Indonesia rather than here at home—assuming they can win the confidence of Indonesian clients.
Here, it’s the residential projects driving US$ 7 Billion or 53.4% of the construction industry. Infrastructure and non-residential/commercial projects account for only US$ 4.85 Billion and 1.24 Billion respectively. With construction spending in the Philippines projected to increase only 2.5% by 2018, the answers to a healthy and thriving architectural industry clearly lie beyond our shores.
—The Philippines has more to gain than any other ASEAN country
Tolentino: We don’t represent even 10% of the ASEAN market—what, less than 5%? So that means there’s 95% of the volume that we can target, and they can only target 5% if they come here. We have to look at it from that perspective. There’s a big opportunity outside. That doesn’t mean it will automatically land in our laps. We have to work for it, and if we work hard for it, we can capture a piece of that market.
BluPrint: If the biggest opportunity is in Indonesia, how do we penetrate Indonesia?
Tolentino: In the same way we establish our practices locally. You look for the right contacts.
Casas: Look for the right client.
Tolentino: Learn how business is done in that country.
BluPrint: Should it be an organized effort? Do we approach it individually or as an industry?
Casas: It starts with the individual, with each architect’s expertise.
Tolentino: It’s both. As Jun [Palafox] said, we have to create a brand for Filipino architects. Like Singaporeans, they say anything from Singapore has good quality, is green, and the best in Asia. That’s their brand. That’s how they market themselves. Another good example that comes to mind is how did we become the BPO capital of the world? We created a brand for BPO services.
BluPrint: How did we do it?
Tolentino: Because it was promoted.
Palafox: Because we’re on the right side of the English divide.
Casas: English proficiency is an advantage; it’s a universal language. When we were practicing in Thailand, we could not speak Thai, so we spoke in English.
Tan: Competitive cost and fees.
Coscolluela: Matakot sila sa atin kasi mura tayo. Puwede ba yun? [Laughter]
Palafox: It’s value for money, actually. Design flair!
—Competitors are also good at concept and design
Coscolluela: Maybe not, because the other countries are also very good in design. They have good concepts.
Palafox: Flexible, resilient, multi-tasking.
Coscolluela: Charming! [Laughter]
Tolentino: Guapo! [More laughter]
BluPrint: Now we’re talking! How about Cambodia, Laos and Myanmar? Are we not ahead of them in terms of skills?
—Cambodia, Laos and Myanmar are not yet developed and could benefit from our experience
Barcia: Yes, it’s still a developing market, as opposed to an already developed market. Puedeng mag-pioneer dun.
Tolentino: Oo. They don’t do large-scale developments the way we do here.
Palafox: Project for project, ours are bigger than theirs.
Almost three hours of animated talk, and the men seem even more jovial and buoyant, trading jokes and throwing punch lines. Palafox and Coscolluela are restless, with full schedules still ahead. Tolentino’s office calls, reminding him his next appointment is due. Casas, Barcia and Tolentino have another round of coffee. In between eruptions of laughter, they are mellow and slightly pensive talking to four architecture students sitting in on the discussion. The energy, positivity, self-assurance, commitment and sense of purpose in the room are infectious. It should be distilled in bottles and administered to architects every time they feel afraid of 2015.
BluPrint: There seems to be a need for a paradigm shift to see opportunities coming, instead of threats. Why don’t the majority look at ASEAN as a potential market, instead of worrying over ASEAN architects coming over here?
Tolentino: That’s the point. If you’re prepared, you have no apprehensions to go out and compete with other ASEAN architects on their own turf. For those who are prepared, they say this is an opportunity. For those who aren’t, they become very insecure.
BluPrint: Are you worried about any firms in particular?
Tolentino: No, no, because it works both ways.
Casas: The projects are generated by the developers. Will the developers engage the foreign architects? I say yes, there’s a possibility. Lamang na sila, you can feel their presence, Singapore-based architectural firms, actually, not Singaporean architects—we’re talking of big firms like Sir Norman Foster, all of them have Singapore offices. And not just architectural firms, there are graphic, interior design, and all the related design services—big firms, based in Singapore and Hong Kong. Globalization nga e. Definitely we will be affected, but our firm is really gearing up to compete regionally. We have practiced abroad, so we know how it is to practice in different ASEAN countries. I’m confident that we can.
BluPrint: How about you, Willy, are you concerned about less jobs in the next 5 to 10 years?
—Our graduates not at par with global standards
Coscolluela: No, but I’m concerned about the young ones just graduating, they won’t stand a chance because they are not on the same level, they are not prepared to compete on an international level.
Barcia: Countries like Singapore, they think in a different way because of their training, their background, and are much more aggressive—they are faster, quicker to respond to that sort of environment. But the Philippines, Thailand, Malaysia, Indonesia, we’re not at the level of Singapore.
BluPint: Why is Singapore a threat when they’re so few? They can’t fill all the ASEAN jobs.
Barcia: They hire our best.
Tolentino: If you go to any architectural firm in Singapore and Hong Kong, most likely you will find a Filipino senior designer or senior architect.
Palafox: There are 817 Filipino architects in Singapore, and 56 of them came from my office. We call them missionary architects! [Laughter]
BluPrint: Anyone else want to volunteer how they’re preparing for integration? Any last words?
Palafox: We have always adhered to international standards. What many of our established firms lack is succession planning. We have a plan but they don’t want me to retire yet!
“If you’re prepared, you have no apprehensions to go out and compete with other ASEAN architects on their own turf. For those who are prepared, they say this is an opportunity. For those who aren’t, they become very insecure.”—Architect Jojo Tolentino of AIDEA
—Develop a competitive edge
Tan: Our weakness is our enemy’s strength. A common weakness of architects, whether from here or Singapore is they usually think concept but not constructability. They conceptualize structures very iconic in shape without knowing if it is constructible or not. Or whether a particular geometry makes structural sense or not. One of the threats to architects is value engineering, because it’s used for cost cutting and cutting corners, and downgrading the value of architecture and space planning. We’re focusing on efficiency and structural sense as our competitive edge.
—Review management set-up and logistics to be able to open an office abroad
Barcia: In our case, we’ll have to do certain changes in the way we run the company before we set up another unit that will handle ASEAN projects. The paperwork is different; you may need to have people there, at least during the design stages; someone on the ground to talk to client or his consultants. Of course, we don’t wanna hire a lot of people for that, additional cost yun. So perhaps hire a little, retrain the ones we already have who have the right attitude and aptitude for that type of work. And assign them there.
—Filipinos are highly respected in Indonesia, the largest ASEAN construction market
Tolentino: Ako, I’m positive. First of all, although 2015 is the prescribed year for integration, it will happen very slowly. In the short term, we will see something very similar to what we have now. Beyond the 5th year is the question. By that time, we have to be prepared to compete. Filipinos are very respected in Indonesia, and looking at the numbers, Indonesia’s at the top of the list! As an industry, we have to be organized and prepare our fellow architects. We don’t have a setup that ensures to foreign clients that we will deliver their projects. If we reach that stage, personally, I don’t see a problem.
Casas: For us, we will just do the process. We will apply to become an ASEAN architect. You have to be, number one, eligible muna, diba? So first and foremost, let’s follow the rules of being an ASEAN architect. Attending this forum is a start. That’s why we came. We know some friendly firms in Singapore also. We will start comparing notes. Whatever it takes.