Menarco CEO: Healthy Buildings Are a Human Right
Carmen Jimenez-Ong’s mission is to model a new breed of developers who place people and planet on equal, if not greater, footing with profit.
August 11, 2020
Written by Judith Arellano Torres
Photographed by Ed Simon
Completed in 2018, Jimenez-Ong’s first project, the Menarco Tower, has earned the distinction of being the Healthiest Building in Southeast Asia, the first and only to be certified Gold in both LEED and WELL.
“Healthy buildings are a human right,” Jimenez-Ong told me when I met her in 2018. I’d never heard a designer, builder, or developer speak in those terms. In the months that followed, I encouraged her to share her mission and story with others. She was always reticent, saying she wasn’t media savvy and was uncomfortable in the limelight. Ironic, given her father is Menardo Jimenez, a top shareholder and former president of GMA Network, the country’s largest media company.
While Metro Manila was in lockdown in March to May 2020, I thought of Menarco Tower, which Jimenez-Ong told me had HVAC filters so fine they could prevent bacteria and virus-laden aerosol from spreading in the building. I thought of its satin-smooth surfaces that repel dirt; the deep and extra-tall-ceilinged lobby; the immaculate bathrooms and showers for employees who bike to work. The UV rays in the sunlit stairwell designed to encourage people to move instead of taking the elevator would kill the coronavirus. I remembered the gems of art displayed on every floor, making the tower a vertical museum, connecting with people, and provoking thought.
I wondered whether all the attention Jimenez-Ong lavished caring for people’s wellbeing would pay off. With everyone working from home, would employees realize they had been working in a building that promoted their health and made them feel good?
Apparently, they already had, in the two years since the building had opened its doors for business. Jimenez-Ong didn’t have stats, but she claims the companies that hold office at Menarco say absenteeism and people coughing or sniffling at work are remarkably lower than when they held office elsewhere.
If there is anything good COVID-19 has done for building users, it is to underscore to business owners and developers the urgency of designing, building, and operating healthy and inclusive built environments. The novel coronavirus won’t be the last deadly virus to hit us; if we want lower infection rates for the next pandemics, we should live, travel, work, and play in environments that protect our health and wellbeing. WELL Buildings embody the better normal we should strive for. These terrible health and economic crises we are in, therefore, is the opportune time to lean on governments, investors, and business owners to build healthy and sustainable buildings. As Churchill said, “Never let a crisis go to waste.”
Jimenez-Ong is wasting no time making a case for WELL Building standards, becoming more active in sharing her story online. Her presentation, ‘More Than a Building: Unlocking the Keys to Creating the Healthiest Spaces in Southeast Asia,’ at the LIXIL Design DeepDive™ Live Session on August 19, testifies the benefits of integrating human health and wellbeing in building design, construction, and operations. Other presenters are Jack Noonan, VP – APAC, International WELL Building Institute; Tina Periquet, principal designer of Periquet Galicia; and Antoine Besseyre Des Horts, VP LIXIL Global Design and Consumer Experience – APAC. Responding to the presentations and kicking off the Q&A are reactors Raymond Rufino, CEO of NEO; Stephanie Tan-Branquinho, Principal Architect of Spacefabrik; and Joseph Javier, Managing Principal of JDSM – Manila
Register here to watch the live session.
Further attesting to her conviction, the founder and CEO of Menarco Development Corporation is pushing through with constructing her second WELL office building this year, despite the battering Philippine businesses are taking from COVID-19. It will stand on 5th Avenue, a few blocks away from Menarco Tower on 32nd Street in Bonifacio Global City.
In the following interview, Jimenez-Ong recounts the challenges an idealistic, first-time developer faced, searching for the right partners to build her dream and future legacy.
Did your dad put you up to this?
My dad really believes in me and said, “Why don’t you be the one to build on 32nd Street?” I’ve always loved the land and was in charge of land acquisition in the family. This lot and another lot on 5th Avenue, I purchased for the family. But I waited to build because I just had a baby at the time. Anyway, my baby turned three, and my father was like, “Carmen, Andy’s three already. Come on, build the building.” So I said, okay, okay.
At that time, the Fort was dominated by design-build arrangements with a local architect and builder. The architect was very aggressive in pursuing us. He said, “If your dad wants you to build a building, I’ll do it for this price, and you just come from time to time, and after x number of years, it’s done!” Haha! Sounds great, right? No headaches!
We explored things with him (but) as I looked at the finished product, I wasn’t too thrilled with how things (the buildings) aged. Quality became very important to me, plus a commitment to invest in things that were seen and unseen. By “seen and unseen,” I realized most developers, Judith, they care about what it looks like outside, how their lobby looks, but their elevators, their toilets—ah! And the spaghetti on top, you know? I said I’m not gonna do that! Instead of becoming a tour of what I wanted, it became more of what I didn’t want to see.
So your progressive ideas arose from frustration at other buildings? Did you have a notion that buildings have got to be kinder to people?
Yes. The bottom line is, it came from a place inside of me. Frustrations with other buildings, yes. But it’s more of I felt this country deserved to be put on the map for something good because there’s just so much bad press about the Philippines. And because the industry I was operating in was construction, real estate, property development, I felt (a progressive building) was a way I could contribute and be authentic to who I am. No matter what I do, I’m always an early adapter.
Yes, I like to be a prime mover, meaning if I believe in it, I will just jump and tackle whatever it is.
You gotta be fearless.
Fearless, yes. I have God on my side. How do I explain this? My foundation is strong. My parents and family have been very supportive of whatever I do, plus, I have applied myself with whatever I do. I read a lot. I’m very motivated when I want to do something. I’m an inquisitive person, a life-long learner. I never profess to know everything, and always believed that the people around me have something to teach me, so I approached it with an open heart and an open mind.
You don’t entertain doubts.
No. When it comes, I pray for wisdom because they will come. Questions arise, especially in construction. But somehow, when you have a relationship with your Maker, he teaches you the way to go. And when you believe that he is omnipresent, omniscient, and omnipotent, you know that he just knows! Why worry? Why dwell, right?
What was your prayer?
Show me the right people to work with for this building. Who would understand what I was after? Who could I trust in this industry? I was 39 and had next to no experience with construction other than building our house, building our office in another building, and fitting that out. And in the end, people come your way to help you out in the process.
Jojo was one answer to prayer, yes! (Note: Architect Jojo Tolentino is president & CEO of AIDEA, which Jimenez-Ong commissioned as architects of Menarco Tower.) Somebody had recommended him, which was Datem. I was introduced to Arnold, and then we had lunch. (Note: Architect Arnold P. De Asis is one of the founders of Datem, a Quadruple-A general contractor.)
How did you meet Arnold?
My brother knew him. So Arnold was giving me names of architects. And if I had experienced their project, I’d say, “No.” I said no, many times. Until one night, he called me. I was having dinner, and he said, “I think I have the right one for you.” Because he’d gotten to know me over the process, right? Then he explained AIDEA and Jojo. Met Jojo within the week. And I thought this is the guy. Why? Because Jojo is very humble. Right? He grew his business but doesn’t have the ego that most architects have. He had a good track record. I saw that he cared for his people because when I visited his office, someone was playing the piano, and I knew one of his office managers from long, long ago. He is very sure of himself and loves his country. And for that, I felt that this is the man I want to work with for my first.
And so we got our quadruple-A contractor, we had our architect who had a commitment to excellence. All throughout this process, I had with me, Anna (Note: Anna Sy, principal designer of C|S Design Consultancy). She is someone that I really choose to keep by my side. There is no way I could achieve anything like this without her. She is a vanguard of restraint and elegance. She will tell me like it is, which I really appreciate. Most architects kowtow to what you want and then not really care. O sige, you want the door there, para matapos na. But our relationship is really, really good. Most people find it hard to work with her, but I appreciate her frankness, I appreciate her commitment to excellence. If I am the spirit or the soul of this place, I would say Anna is the mind behind this, the brain. I asked her too about Jojo, and she said yes. So that became the team.
So you had your A-team. Were there people telling you that your ideas were expensive, would take a longer time to achieve ROI?
Oh, yes, yes. How did I maintain equilibrium? I had a budget. So I just had to keep to this specific budget, which amazingly we did.
It doesn’t look like you gave anything up. Because I can see in other buildings where they saved. What gave?
What gave? Um, how do I put this? What gave was me. Haha! Meaning, I personally attended to everything.
You saved on.. project management?
We had a project manager. But by personally sitting down—okay, this I learned from Raymond (Note: Raymond Rufino is CEO of NEO Office PH, the developers of the seven NEO buildings in Bonifacio Global City). Before I embarked on this, I talked to him. And his best advice to me was, “When the owner is there, it’s very different, Carmen, so you have to be willing to commit. Because if not, things will fall by the wayside.” So I attended every meeting. I got to know every supplier and shook the hand of every person involved in this project, even down to celebrating a hundred thousand hours, five hundred thousand hours, I was there with the people. I was there with the engineers, I was completely present and accessible.
All that CEO time is expensive.
That’s what I mean. I saved on me. Haha! I negotiated all the deals. So there was no hanky panky anywhere. And part of it, I think to be very honest, I think the contractors had a soft spot for Menarco because…
You were humble? Eager to learn?
Yes, and they wanted us to succeed. They wanted to see this relatively young—in the industry—female, succeed at what she was doing. And for that, I am very grateful. I was honest with them, Judith, I told them, I don’t know anything, come and sit down with me please, because I want to learn from you. So from Datem, even Jojo, I would call him, in the beginning, often, and Ping Aliling of JACMI, everybody, even our fit-out contractor. All of them. I’d visit them, go as far as Pampanga, or wherever.
They saw you were sincere.
Yes, I was authentic. Sa yo na yun kung gusto mo pa akong lokohin, diba? But I didn’t have that fear because I surrounded myself with experts in their field. So meaning, while I come to you bright-eyed, bushy-tailed, and opened my ears, I validated everything they told me.
And I had the advantage of being my father’s daughter. I had access. People would welcome the questions, and I guess being part of the family that I am, they also knew that it was to their advantage to support me because this is Menardo Jimenez’s daughter. So while he was not involved, he was around. When things got rough, I would go to him, and I would cry, you know, bawl!
What’s an example of something gone wrong?
Oh! Let’s not go there! Hahaha!
For example, having to renegotiate our contract with Datem! Because it began as a design-build. But it ended up becoming an owner-managed project.
How did that happen?
Because we—oh! This is such a long story! But long story short, my dad, if you know him, whatever he wants done should’ve been done yesterday. He said, “Break ground and then do your design, so you save time.”
So in my naivete, I broke ground. I wouldn’t do that again! That’s one of your questions, right, “What would you do differently?” Haha! There’s your answer to that. AIDEA, Datem, Anna, JACMI, and I were designing this whole thing while this entire place was being excavated. Only to find out certain things in the process, like parking, we needed an extra basement to fit the parking requirement of—
Yes. What else? Our elevators had to be of a certain number, to address my requirement of a specific waiting time. And then, later on, I want a unitized curtain wall. I didn’t want openings for windows because, in my research, I found out that when it’s unitized, there are fewer leaks. So there were changes along the way.
And the thing is, when I put my mind to something, I don’t want to settle for anything less. So that was evolving, and what happened was when we finalized the design when Datem gave a cost, and Datem’s price was very high because it was design-build, so parang wala na rin akong choice, diba? That was when I cried to my dad, I felt it was unfair that I was not told about the implications of decisions that I had made and felt that my hands were tied now that the design was done.
Because you started work before agreeing on design and cost.
Yes, and I was handcuffed to working with this group because we had entered into a contract. My dad said, “Masyado kang seryoso sa trabaho mo, hobby-hobby lang yan!” But then, while I have my earthly father, I have my heavenly father. My earthly father, he can change minds, but my heavenly father, he can change the hearts of people. So I faced my lions, which at that time was Datem, and I sat down with Arnold. My people were trying to bring the cost down and nag-ca-clash na. So when we sat, we found a solution.
He said, “If you want to execute a building of that caliber, this is our price. But one way you can save is if you do it yourself.” So when you ask, “What gave?” I say it was me because in the end, after two or three weeks of pulling my hair because I didn’t want to, haha! Because I didn’t want to live and breathe construction, because it’s a man’s world, pataasan ng ihi, I realized I had to.
How much did you save?
Half a billion pesos. So you tell me what the decision should have been, but it was half a billion.
Amazing. You saved while learning along the way. But next time around, someone should do that for you. It will cost, but you shouldn’t do everything yourself—unless that’s your thing.
Yeah, that’s what I’m going through now. You’re right, I appreciate it for what I learned. I appreciate it because I was so hands-on because I had to save.
That’s rare, Carmen.
That you saved money while learning. Because when most people embark on something they don’t know, they make costly mistakes. But you learned on the job and saved.
Hahaha! Can you write me a letter and I’ll give it to my father? And my family? You got the heart of it all. Because in my family, I’m considered someone who just does everything well, it was only expected. It was a work of love. I don’t get into anything I don’t believe in. So yeah. We saved half a billion. Plus! We added WELL. And we added LEED.
You didn’t aim to be WELL and LEED-certified from the start? I thought those were your goals from the get-go.
LEED came in I would say the latter half of while we were designing. Yeah, because I didn’t even know about LEED. The vision began with just I want a Filipino-designed and built building to international standards. It was really all about, in my head, the Philippine flag. I want to be proud of my people and our country, and I wanted this to testify to that. I want it to be built well. And then, oh! There’s LEED, what’s that? I like that! Because we were headed in that direction with the choices I made. WELL came in about 2016.
My gosh, that’s two-thirds of the way in.
Yeah. A friend told me about WELL. He said you know what, I came from Japan, and I thought of you. Why? Because there are WELL buildings there and I think it’s worth your while because you’re already doing it in Menarco. Certification? There’s a certification for wellness? That day I started reading about it, and within 24 hours, I told my team we’re doing this because we’re already doing it anyway. I was already in talks with Silverlens for art, we had already designed our staircase, so it had natural light coming in, so, yeah, so it was a natural progression. It was wonderful to see.
Your work being validated.
Yes, and it was just a matter of upping it a notch and allowing others to test it. For example, when we were deciding on the filtration system, we had to go up to a MERV 13 for WELL. “Are you sure you want to do that?” they asked me. I’m like, yes. Because for me, in my heart of hearts, I believe every person should be well. Well at work, well at home.
Do you have data to support the claim that the filtration system you used filters out even viruses?
Of course, you have no control where people go before and after work, but would you know whether people working in Menarco Tower get sick less than in other buildings?
I asked our property management team, our construction team, and Colliers what the tenants have been saying. And definitely, their sick leaves have gone down and people are more motivated to come to work. I was asking, how do we get the actual numbers? Others expressed appreciation for the staircases even. The lobby too because we didn’t stuff it with things. That was deliberate on Anna’s part. She insisted that the lobby be through-and-through. Our accounting was saying—even my dad—that Menarco could earn more if we leased retail spaces in the lobby.
Put in a Coffee Bean. (Note: The Jimenez family owns CBTL Holdings.)
Yeah, haha! There were a lot of instances people cited the lobby as maaliwalas. John Rubio of Facebook, the country manager, says his people are very, very happy. They wanted to be here even though they were just right around the corner. Clearly, it’s not just because of the city you’re in but also the building you’re in. And when they were visiting, they noticed the difference.
If the walls could speak, they would speak of the love that was put into this building. Because even during construction, we were doing site visits, it was summer, we were laying each floor, and I felt terribly hot. I thought, if I’m hot and I’m just visiting, what more our workers, right? I told my construction group, we need to get tents for the top, to put fans, put water, and give them bananas. Allow them to hydrate. Because I learned they would have to wait for their break before they go so many floors down to drink water. Why? I was told that’s how things are done. But why? So long story short, Menarco did it. There were more water stations positioned.
What else did we do? Like when we celebrate something, I have an ice cream cart, we have the mamang sorbetero come and give the workers ice cream. Palamig, or sago. Yeah, it added to my cost, but for me, it’s really being a new breed of developer.
Tell me more about this new breed. Nurturing?
Nurturing, always aiming for excellence, is mindful, not just about the building but also about the people. You asked a while ago about ROI and profit, diba, I always go back and ask, “What’s important to me?” And it’s people, planet, and profit. So the decisions I made for Menarco Tower were guided by that. For me, if you take care of your people, your profit will follow.
But your profit margin won’t be as big as other developers.
Yes, it won’t. But that’s sharing. I don’t think I was put on this planet to make as much money as I can for myself and my family because I believe we are here as stewards of what God has blessed us with. And for me, I have this opportunity to create something of a certain magnitude in a certain way. And I am blessed that my family trusts me. I have earned that trust, so I cannot do anything but give back. So have I been screwed in this process? No!
You need to replicate yourself for the second building.
I have a COO, and we have consultants also that have joined us. People have come. I’m hoping God will give Menarco the people to carry on the vision without me doing all (whispers) the watching over everybody. I think by nature, whoever is entrenched in the industry is set in their ways, in how they do things, so it’s really a challenge.
If I were a developer and there was a chance I might convert to your ways, what would you tell me?
It comes back to you!
Not in money, though.
Well, I think business is flawed. Because the metric is money. I believe other measures should be in place in responsible business ownership. Such as quality. Integrity. It’s a culture that needs to be transformed—a way of thinking. So while money speaks, I think reputation is more important.
Many developers make a lot of money with mediocre work, but people are still buying their condos and leasing office units.
People don’t have other options yet. We want to change that.
Why should I do it your way?
So that you can sleep at night. And you can walk the streets knowing no one wants to kill you. Or no one is cursing you for a ceiling that may have fallen on them while they’re sleeping, for an elevator that you put in in a shoddy way because you wanted to save money.
Developers here usually pay their way through anything. That’s not the legacy I want to leave behind. That’s not the message I want to give to the Filipino people that that is acceptable. That doesn’t mean this building is perfect. But it does say we gave everything a lot of thought. And that people were at the center of the decisions we made for this building. And will continue to be in how it is run. That is not a typical mindset in the Philippines, and that is why I tell you, it is a hard mountain to climb. Even to this day. Even how to run the building, what to spend or not.
I realize as you said, I have to duplicate myself. I have to find the right people who believe in the same thing. There’s skills, and there are the values.
Who doesn’t say they aim for excellence? People claim that, but there’s a big difference between their buildings and yours.
Thank you! I need to hear that because sometimes, I wonder, does it really make a difference? I was telling my team, it should continue, no matter what project Menarco builds. I consider this high-end, but we could embark on dormitories or mass housing, and whatever it is, instead of the lion’s share for us, lessen that and share with others, give value. I think God has blessed all of us enough to share.
Goodness, are you eating into your inheritance to build?
What? Haha! Like any business, we have loans to pay off. We aren’t a charity, it also has to run efficiently. We have to be wise about managing our finances. It’s really just knowing I don’t want to squeeze everybody. You hear stories of contractors coming out of meetings crying! It doesn’t have to be that way. If you treat them well, they end up wanting to give more because of the relationship.
Your contractors are to be congratulated because everything is skwalado (aligned and square).
Jay had a lot to do with that. Porcelanosa. We flew in a master craftsman from Spain to teach our construction team, which did an excellent job keeping to the standards. (Note: Jay Ong, Jimenez-Ong’s husband, is a distributor of Porcelanosa tiles.)
I heard you had people do things over if they weren’t done just so.
Yes. Is that not normal?
Not for minute details like spacing between tiles, not at all. You see lots of buildings where the tiles are not level, and floors aren’t flat. Parallel lines aren’t parallel, lines don’t intersect at right angles. The parking is fantastic! So clean!
Thank you. You know, they really made it with pride. We used materials that were also considered unusual, like the slate in front, the Habana marble stone, Jay had a lot to do with that. In fact, I wasn’t keen on choosing Porcelanosa, I mean, why should I? And he said then, “You have to come with us to Spain. Come not as my wife but as a client. And I was sold because I saw the quality with which they made their materials.
Judith, even learning about the toilets, they can be wall-mounted or floor-mounted; that was a decision that would affect how the pipes would be installed, something a typical developer might not give much thought. But I wanted to know why? What’s the difference? Understanding the pros and cons. It was Jet Ilaga of Collier who said, “You know, CJ, if you use the wall-mounted,” and Jay also said, “It’s easier to clean, and you won’t have that grime.” And I thought that would help the Menarco building age well.
You had an as-built BIM model made. That, too, is unusual.
That was because Jojo and Arnold of Datem mentioned that it would help detect clashes ahead of time. And it would save us construction time and money in the long run. It’s one of those things that you spend on to save more later.
To go back to your earlier question, what to tell other developers? When you invest in the right things, you end up saving because good quality materials stand the test of time. Whereas having to replace them so often because they aren’t up to a certain standard. Having talked to other developers, I learned they had to change their tiles. Like Raymond, for example, he took out all his China tiles and put in Porcelanosa. And when we chatted, he said, “I wish I knew it then” because he could really see the difference. We would have lunch, I would ask him lots of questions, and he would teach me. He was very generous.
He headed PhilGBC, you should have gotten BERDE certification too.
Yes, I should have. Actually, my dream is to do for WELLness what he did for BERDE. (Note: BERDE is a Philippine green building rating system.) If I were to make a difference in this industry, it’s that way. Because I live and breathe it. You know, Pilates, balance in life, WELLness, that is the conversation I would love to have, to champion in this industry because I think this is so important. More important than saving the earth is protecting the people who inhabit it because when you are well, you will naturally take care of your surroundings. People should know that healthy buildings are a human right.
Watch ‘Excellence in Times of Crises,’ the third installment of ‘Build A Better Normal’ LIXIL Design DeepDive™ Live Sessions, and join the discussion.
In addition to Carmen Jimenez-Ong’s ‘More Than a Building: Unlocking the Keys to Creating the Healthiest Spaces in Southeast Asia,’ the other speakers and talks are:
Jack Noonan, VP – APAC, International WELL Building Institute – ‘Healthy Buildings and Healthy People: How a global pandemic can start a revolution of better health, equity, and performance.’
Multi-awarded Tina Periquet, principal designer of Periquet Galicia – ‘Reaching Beyond Our Grasp: The Virtue of Ambition,’ which is about aiming, not to be great, but to do great things. In it, Periquet outlines an approach her firm uses in every project that allows them to set high targets with confidence, and a strategy to confront the possibility of failure without fear.
Antoine Besseyre Des Horts, VP LIXIL Global Design and Consumer Experience – APAC whose presentation is ‘Creating a better and healthier living for everyone, everywhere.’
Reactors Raymond Rufino, CEO of NEO; Stephanie Tan-Branquinho, Principal Architect of Spacefabrik; and Joseph Javier, Managing Principal of JDSM – Manila foment discussion ahead of the Q&A with the audience.