NEX Tower’s humanist design makes good business sense

Nova Group managing director Ricardo Cuerva explains why the Grade A office tower by SOM and R. Villarosa Architects will make their tenants and their employees happy

  • May 31, 2019

  • Written by Judith Arellano Torres

  • Photographs by Studio Periphery

The NEX Tower is a faceted jewel along the stretch of Ayala Avenue between VA Rufino and HV de la Costa Streets in Makati, where the country’s once-premiere office buildings are now aging, not all too gracefully. Nova Group’s 29-story skyscraper designed by Skidmore, Owings & Merrill with R. Villarosa as architect of record is a welcome development, not just for its unique, sliced-off façade, but also for its stunning front lobby and elegant back lobby, which hopefully will nudge NEX Tower’s neighbors to clean up, spruce up, and redefine the way they welcome people into their buildings.

More importantly, at least for the tenants who house their offices here, they get to experience humanist design as good business sense.

Nova Group’s resolve to build a structure “of great quality” and exceed client expectations by “delivering more value and a superior architectural experience” has won the nod of the Urban Land Institute (ULI), a global organization of real estate experts committed to excellence in development practices. The ULI has shortlisted the NEX Tower in its Asia Pacific Awards for Excellence 2019. It is the only Philippine entry (six were submitted) to make it to a list of 15 with buildings from Singapore, Hong Kong, Sydney, Queensland, and Shanghai. Winners will be announced at the ULI Asia Pacific Summit in Shanghai, 11-13 June 2019. Let’s watch out for that!

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Nova Group managing director Ricardo ‘Chut’ Cuerva has two decades’ experience in Philippine real estate. While folks in the construction industry know who he is, few among the general public know that he, his father, Ricardo Cuerva, Sr., and their company, Nova Group, as co-developers with Century Properties, have constructed 50 medium and high-rise condominium towers and residential developments—many high profile—in Manila since the 1980s. There’s Essensa, Azure, Acqua Private Residences, Commonwealth by Century, and Gramercy Residences, to name some.

Cuerva took his Bachelor of Architecture at SCI-Arc and his Master of Science in Real Estate Development at the Columbia University Graduate School of Architecture, Planning, and Preservation, and it was a delight talking to a developer who did not press marketing points upon us but was enthused discussing design and values.

Here are some excerpts from the walking interview BluPrint had with Cuerva, as he showed us various features and destinations in the building and explained their whys and benefits.

SOM sliced off the southwest corner of the building to generate superior views of Ayala Avenue and the Makati skyline

BluPrint: Many architects say the ubiquitous rectilinear shape of our towers is because developers want to make the most use of every floor plate. You gave up much space by slicing off one corner of the NEX Tower.

Cuerva: That’s not necessarily true. The architectural concept was slicing off a corner to create this façade and slicing off the bottom corner to create a space for the lobby. When you slice that off, you don’t actually throw away that space. What you slice off there, you can add on back to your height and get the same FAR.

Spending more on construction because plain square floor plates are cheaper. Of course, that’s cheaper, less complicated, and faster. But that’s not what we set out to do. We wanted to make something interesting and iconic.

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How did you reconcile the need to provide something beautiful with spending more? It depends on what you want. Do you want to provide a decent office building or do you want to provide an iconic office building? And these moves aren’t just aesthetic moves; there is function behind that. The reason we sliced that corner off is that you have these incredible views down Ayala Avenue.

That function you speak of, is it to create joy? Because the slice didn’t create more office space— It created better office space. If (the area) were square, you’d have a corner office there, and the boss would have that nice view. But because you do that (the slice), you have a large area where many people have that nice view as against just one person. You would be facing the building in front of you, and not that great vista. And it makes for a standout structure. If we had built a rectangular building, you wouldn’t be here talking to me.

Media attention. Not a bad function! (Laughter)

The North-facing entrance provides vehicular access via the back street, De La Rosa Access Road

I often feel our developers value engineer the beauty out of buildings. Modernists don’t talk about beauty like it’s a bad word. You ask why we’re willing to spend more. It’s to create more value out of your building. If you create an ordinary building, you get ordinary rental rates. If you build something extraordinary, it can create a premium.

Does beauty have to be expensive? But that’s a whole other discussion. Are there enough tenants to pay that premium? Yes. Yes.

Where are they coming from? From other office buildings. (Laughter) Who wouldn’t want to work in a great space, right?

The glazed façade of South-facing, Ayala Avenue entrance provides pedestrian access.

The concept of our architects was about transparency and openness and permeability. If you walk down Ayala Avenue, most of the buildings have this closed feeling. We wanted to change that, to make a building that is transparent and connects the pedestrian on Ayala Avenue to that of De la Rosa. So we created this almost cathedral-like space using these glass walls and the skylight up above. At certain parts of the day, like noon, you get stunning sunlight streaking into the space.

It’s beautiful. Thank you.

How high is it? 16 meters. We were faced with the decision of doing a two-story lobby, which is generally nice, or building this super tall lobby. SOM gave us that decision point. Do you want to do this? Do you want to do that? Of course, I wanted to do the super lobby, right, and so I worked with them and we made models, 3D models, cardboard models, to understand what would we achieve if we took that risk, that additional cost, that longer lead time. And they showed us the kind of space we can create. So we decided to do it at great expense, at a longer construction period, but again, that’s why you’re here because we built something extraordinary.

The glazed façades of NEX Tower face North-South, avoiding most of the harsh daylight coming in from the East and West. Photographed by BluPrint Team

[Cuerva discusses the sloped walls of the lobby.]  

We had to install it on a slope. We’re not just the developer, we’re the builders as well. When our architects give us these innovative concepts, it’s great, but I have to put on my other hat and think how do we build this. To my knowledge, no one’s done this here, so we had to figure it out. We did a lot of mockups, a lot of testing until we figured it out.

Twin green walls 11 meters high flank the receptionist’s desk. LED lights ensure the indoor plants enjoy sufficient light to thrive.

And then, there’s this green wall. It’s the largest living green wall in the country.

Inside a building, you mean? Yes, and even outside. Do you know of any green wall bigger than this?

Maybe the ones on EDSA, but they’re all dying? (Laughter) Emphasis on the living green wall! This is a hydroponic wall irrigated from behind. We devised these LED grow lights. We did light meter testing, what’s the correct distance—a lot of science went into this. The concept came from the architects, SOM, and there’s a company in Singapore, Vertical Green, that did the irrigation. The plants are thriving very well.

How about maintenance? We have a man lift. Somebody goes up once a month to do a little trimming, pulling off of dead leaves. We use it also to clean the glass and other parts of the building.

Do you kill the lights at night? Yes, we turn them off at night. The plants need to rest. The whole idea of wellness and health is essential to Nex Tower. Apart from being nice for the people who work here—it’s the first thing they see when they come to the office; it’s the last thing they see when they go home—what this wall does is convert carbon dioxide into oxygen, so the air in here is cleaner than the air outside.

Hanging above the concierge’s desk is a painting by Pacquing. Two banks of 15 elevators decrease waiting times in the 29-story tower. Photographed by BluPrint team

We also commissioned some Filipino artists. This mural here is a site-specific work by Bernie Pacquing. He’s one of my favorite artists. It’s a stitched-together canvas. His painting studio is exactly that size, and he painted on the floor.

What’s the orientation of the building? North would be there [pointing towards the glazed Ayala Avenue entrance] and south over there [pointing towards the De la Rosa Access Road back entrance].

So the glazing never gets direct sunlight from the East or West. No, but at around 12:00 to 1:00, when the sun is very high up there, it comes in, strikes the wall and is quite stunning.

Nothing to turn your back on: NEX Tower’s elegant drop off and back entrance

I appreciate your back lobby. Most people get into their offices on Ayala through the back access roads, and most back lobbies are dingy and rather inhospitable. Yes, we put much thought into that. We have these nice trees there; it’s a modern tropical landscape; it’s not a back door.

The openings on the third level allow light from the skylights above to fall into the lobby below. Across the bridge is a gallery space, for now dedicated to NEX Tower’s provenance and design, Photographed by BluPrint Team

How did Nova Group choose SOM? SOM is one of the oldest, most influential architectural firms in the world. In 1952, they did Lever House, which was one of the first curtain wall International Style office buildings in the world. And then they also built the tallest building in the world, the Burj al Khalifa in Dubai, and One World Trade Center in New York. So when we decided we wanted to do a premium office tower, it was only natural we considered SOM.

So it was just SOM? No, we did consider a few other companies. All of them were highly qualified. I’m sure if we worked with someone else, we would have done something great as well. However, we decided to go with SOM. A lot of the time, it’s the rapport that you have with certain individuals and this guy, Nick Medrano, he’s the SOM director I worked closely with. He went to Columbia as well, and he and I worked well together. That’s what’s most important in selecting an architect—how well you can work together, how well you can overcome challenges. SOM has several offices; we worked with the New York office. We’d do a lot of video conferencing, but they’d also fly into Manila many times.

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Photos of the people in the green and happy neighborhood of NEX Tower, on the third level, across the bridge

These are your tenants? Oh, that’s Vicic from JLL. Yes, Christophe. They were in another office building. You’re asking who the people are who would choose to work in NEX Tower? We made this gallery to show not just the companies who decided to move here but also the service providers, the building managers. This is the lady, a bank manager of the BPI downstairs; and these are the baristas who serve the coffee downstairs every day. The friendly neighborhood of NEX Tower. We just wanted to pay tribute to everyone who believed in NEX Tower.

I wonder how the tenants—the business owners—justify the cost of that premium. Do you know Rufino of TNG? Yes.

His motto is, “Happy is the new green.” You create a great office tower, yes, it costs more, but the tenants are happier because absenteeism goes down and the employees are more productive. Exactly. Exactly. There’s something called the ‘war for talent’ today. The corporate landscape is very competitive. The companies today who choose premium office buildings do it because they want to empower their employees. They want them to feel happy working for the company, and those are the kinds of companies we want to attract. Companies who want to give the best to their employees, who feel happy when they come to work, who are healthy because the fresh air we bring into the office is the right amount of fresh air (as against all recycled air); who don’t have to lineup for the elevator.

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There’s this report from the World GBC that says office workers who get good views with daylight from their workspace get 46 minutes more sleep at night than workers who don’t. Exactly. There are studies on biophilic design that show when humans are around nature, their cortisol levels, stress hormone levels, go down. So creativity levels are also boosted when you’re around plants. So that’s two more reasons we have this green wall in the lobby, and I’m about to show you more green spaces in the building. If you’re a company, you want that for your employees. I wish we could quantify the human benefits in figures.

Yes, the ROI would be the best argument for building better buildings. Otherwise, you just build it. You go ahead and raise the bar, and people see it and realize that’s what people want, and everyone follows. The tenants are predominantly multinational companies. They see trends in other countries where they are, and they know that this is the direction forward.

The fourth floor deck where employees needing quiet or congregation time can hang for a bit. Photographed by BluPrint Team

Here we have another green wall, this time it’s outdoors. It’s just nice to be able to get away from your desk, away from your computer and be with nature. This area is open all the time. The companies can also use it as an event space.

Are podiums and gardens for employees to enjoy a standard amenity for office buildings nowadays? I don’t think you’ll find a lot.

Ours doesn’t have one. (Laughter) Our office is in Strata 100, one of the oldest buildings in Ortigas. But then, when it was built, Ortigas was one large green field. Everywhere you looked, that’s all you saw—green. Right, it was all nature then—great biophilic design! (Laughter)

How about the company’s clients being impressed by the better address, does that factor in? For some, yes, but I’d say most companies would do it more for their employees. It’s not about impressing your client, although that’s important too. But I think it’s more because the company is progressive and concerned about their people.

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How many buildings here care about people’s wellness? There’s Raymond Rufino’s The Net Group and Carmen Jimenez-Ong of Menarco, and now, you. Actually, both of them are my friends. Carmen and I—our two-year olds are playmates. We were also classmates at Ateneo. I know Raymond as well. There’s an organization called Urban Land Institute I’m a member of, and Raymond used to be the chairman. It’s an interesting organization for the real estate industry; the goal is to share best practices among developers. That’s part of our goal. We look at leading cities around the world, we work with the best people globally, like SOM, and bring these innovative ideas to Manila. So we try to show what is possible if you broaden your mind and do something good for your tenants, good for your business, and raise the level of development in our country. You have to start somewhere. Then when people see it, they think it’s something they want to do as well, that will be valuable to them and their tenants, then they’ll follow.

The ULI has a global award for excellence, but this year, they initiated the Asia Pacific Awards for Excellence. It’s attuned to the needs of the mega cities of Asia and the constraints we have. There were dozens of projects submitted from around the region, six entries from the Philippines, and we were lucky enough to be named as a finalist for this award. Nex Tower is in nice company. It’s an achievement to be among the finalists. Initiatives like that help create awareness and this drive for excellence.

A typical office floor with 3-meter-high ceilings, in this case, on the 15th floor. Photographed by BluPrint Team

So this is the product. This is what we deliver to our tenants. We have the highest standard ceiling height, which is ten feet or three meters, on the market.

Ten feet to the drop ceiling. Right. We deliver it this way, it’s called a ‘warm shell,’ meaning, you get the acoustic tile ceiling made of aluminum, you get the LED panels for lighting, you get the air conditioning. We did spend a lot on this façade. Sustainability is critical to us. We are pre-certified for LEED Gold. The curtain wall is double-pane.

With argon in between. Yes. It’s essential to have a very efficient curtain wall, so heat doesn’t come in, and you don’t lose the cold. So this is that slice on the corner, as I was saying, you get that pretty great view of Ayala Avenue. If this were square, you’d just be staring at that wall across the street.

You’re right. Don’t you wish you had better-looking neighbors, though? Well… (Laughter) Give them a little time. If you notice, all the columns are pushed to the edge, so we have all this unobstructed space to use.

Do you prefer tenants who occupy an entire floor? Mm-hmm. We’re leasing from the bottom up. Later on, we might, we might do some quadrant floors. Have you chosen a quadrant already? (Laughter)

Up on the roof deck, the potted Talisay trees promise to spread and provide wide green canopies for people sitting on benches.

[Up on the 29th floor] 

For the top floor, we chose to build this roof garden. Again, that biophilic design, we wanted our tenants to have this space. These are African Talisay trees. When they mature, they’ll spread, and we’ll have a lovely little urban forest. 

Oh! There’s a garden downstairs. That’s the private garden for the top floor office. Bathrooms over there, and on the other side (of the wall), the mechanical room and air conditioning.

The top office floor on the 28th enjoys its own garden. Photographed by BluPrint team
On the 28th floor, the office space enjoys exceptionally high ceilings.

[Down one flight to the 28th or top office floor]  

Here you have five-meter ceilings.

Tell me about Villarosa Architects. What did they bring to the table? We’ve worked with them for a long time. We’ve done many projects with them, so it was a very easy working relationship. SOM’s scope of work typically goes up to DD phase, design development phase, they usually hand it over to the local architect, Villarosa, in this case, for construction documents. Villarosa produces the CD package, and then there are several reviews we do together with SOM and Villarosa, and then they complete the CD package, and then we go and build.

Did Villarosa get to see the designs as SOM developed them? Yes, of course. They were there from the beginning. Villarosa informs the design early on because they know the local codes, they know what isn’t code compliant, and SOM stays within the parameters.

I’ve heard nightmare stories of foreign architects who turn over drawings to the local architect, without regard for code, our seismic requirements, and so on. Roy Villarosa himself told me some years ago. The structural designers, in this case, Sy Squared (Sy2), were also involved from the very beginning.

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When did the kick-off meeting happen? Five years ago.

That’s fast. I’ve grown a lot of gray hair since then, but yeah, we completed on schedule.

Ah, because you’re also the contractor. Yes. Yes. That’s also why the quality is high because we weren’t having it built by someone else who bid at the lowest price and had a different set of goals for the project.

Would you recommend this arrangement to other start-up developers? Well, it’s a lot of work. (Laughter) Ayala has its own contractor; MDC builds their projects, although they’re different entities. It is, it is good synergy, and it is very challenging, but we were able to accomplish many things because of that.

View of NEX Tower from the corner of Ayala Avenue and VA Rufino street

What are Nova Group’s plans after NEX Tower? Can’t reveal yet. Let’s just say we’re going to do better than this.

And the architect? Can’t say that either. When I was in architecture school, we would study great architects like Le Corbusier and Frank Lloyd Wright, and I noticed that they had these great clients who commissioned great work. You can’t be a great architect by commissioning your own work. You need someone who believes in your vision who will realize it. That’s what makes extraordinary architecture. You’re only as good as your client will let you be. To create good architecture, you need a good architect, and you need a good client.

You’re both good. I’m not saying that! (Laughter) But I’d like to think that SOM feels we are a good client.

Do you think you were a good client because you are an architect?

[Cuerva laughs hard, embarrassed.]  

Actually, SOM said at the launch, “It’s really great when your client is an architect.” Because we speak the same language, we understand the same concepts. That communication between us drives the work to be better.  

Nova Group managing director Ricardo ‘Chut’ Cuerva