Interview Judith Arellano Torres
Why did the four of you decide to start Arkisens?
Eds Rivera: A few years after graduation, we saw each other again at the 2005 WorldBex (an annual builder’s trade fair in Manila). We casually discussed putting up a firm together. I guess given the dynamics we had back in college, we just decided to go for it.
Jay Pacia: We all had the same goals in life. I felt like I had something to prove to myself, so I was ready to take on that challenge.
Chok Manalo: Looking back, I would say that the idea of working together and spending more time with each other again, just like in college, is really what made us so eager to put up our design studio. And, of course, the prospect of having the freedom to implement our own design agendas for our own projects was (and still is) quite exciting.
What difficulties did you face?
Pacia: We did not have any capital to start with, and we did not ask for financial support from our families, so we had to be resourceful and make lots of sacrifices.
Rivera: None of us comes from a family of architects or contractors. All we were armed with was our confidence in each other and our passion for architecture. And yes, we didn’t even have a starting capital to work with. I remember the daily allowance we gave to ourselves was just enough to buy coffee or a couple of bottles of beer.
Manalo: Getting quality commissions was the biggest challenge we faced as a start-up. It was like a chicken-and-egg situation because it is difficult to find jobs and gain experience when you are still inexperienced. I guess this was also why we were very aggressive in joining competitions, regardless of scale. We had to manufacture experience.
Where was your first office?
Pacia: Our own houses, several Starbucks outlets. But our first formal office was in Pasig City.
Manalo: Eds’ brother-in-law owned a printing company along Pasig, whose office we occupied when they moved out. Working conditions were bad—no air conditioning, no office phone, no Internet. When we needed to send an email, we had to buy a prepaid card from 7 Eleven. We stayed there for a year, then we moved to Bonifacio Global City in 2006. My father-in-law had a unit in a residential compound he wanted to rent out, so we thought, why not use it as an office? So we transferred and stayed there from 2006 to 2012.
Rivera: Afterwards, we moved to a bigger space in Libis, but our people kept increasing in number, so we had to move out again. And we wanted space to put all our materials in since we had already established our construction company, 6X6 Builders. Jay found this 700-square meter lot in Marikina City 2015, where we built our office, warehouse, and workshop.
How did you find work, and what projects did you take on?
Manalo: When we started Arkisens in 2005, we were introduced to the exhibition industry. We were instantly attracted to it because it allowed us to design. The motivation was that simple and naive! And we didn’t mind whether it was for a 150-square meter major exhibition or a 9-square meter booth. We were happy as long as we got to express our ideas through design. It also required a different level of design discipline. It wasn’t so bad, too, finance-wise since we got to build the exhibits ourselves, and the turnover was fast. And so, we aggressively sought these events and their exhibitors, and we would get in touch with all of them to present our services! Working on exhibition spaces helped prepare us for bigger design jobs. From exhibitions, we began doing interior renovations, which led to houses, buildings, complexes, and so on.
Pacia: Some of our first projects were commissioned by colleagues, friends of friends. I will not recommend this, but we did design drawings without having a contract and an acceptance fee!
Rivera: We always delivered more than what we billed clients for. We went out of our way to draft complete signed and sealed drawings for every project. We made perspectives for virtually every nook and cranny! We wanted to give the impression that we were more than capable of producing designs and plans worthy of veteran architects.
Why did you establish your own company, 6X6 Builders?
Manalo: When we established Arkisens, most, if not all, of our projects were design-build jobs. Aside from having control over our design ideas’ execution, construction provided a second source of income that proved to be beneficial for a struggling design start-up like us. Years after, however, we started landing corporate clients that required credentials from both designers and contractors. At the time, Arkisens was registered only as a design consultancy. And so in 2011, we decided to register a second company, 6X6 Builders, which functions as a general contractor.
Pacia: By formalizing Arkisens as a design studio and 6X6 Builders as a construction firm, we established separate portfolios and eventually met the qualifications for bidding invitations that require the specific credentials that we now have.
What traits and skills do you look for when hiring people?
Pacia: People who are willing to really learn and work! And, of course, their design values should be aligned with ours.
Rivera: Our requirements evolved over the years. Although we still look for people aligned with our architecture philosophy, the goal is to hire people and train them as leaders. So now, we look for applicants with leadership potential aside from design skills. Critical thinking is part of our design process, and that’s another trait that we look for. Of course, whenever we interview applicants, we try to see where they fit in a collaborative environment and how they could contribute to the group’s dynamics.
Manalo: In retrospect, especially in the last five or so years, the applicant’s communication skills, aside from his or her own personal design beliefs, have become one of the most important traits that we look for when hiring, mainly because we feel that this skill provides the foundation for potential leadership capacity. This, after all, is necessary if we expect to be able to expand our team in the coming years.
How did the three of you know you would make good partners?
Manalo: I don’t think we knew that then, to be totally honest. Nor was there any doubt that we would not make good partners, really. I guess it was because we had been very close, to begin with. We had been good friends for eight years before forming Arkisens. And we had always considered each other as family. So the decision to be partners just made perfect sense.
Rivera: A big part of it really is friendship. We know each other well, we have mutual respect for each other in every aspect of the business, or I should say, of the “relationship.” It was, to a certain extent, serendipitous.
Pacia: We were the best of friends. We operated with the same values, we had the same mindset, and we spoke in the same frequency—we just understood each other. It was organic how we transitioned from talking about it to making it happen with equal passion and determination.
What challenges did the partnership face in the 15 years you’ve been together, and how did you resolve them?
Rivera: As projects become more complex, the challenges become more complicated as well. In general, the number one challenge we face is communication. The busier we get, the less time there is to sit and talk about what’s happening to both companies. But we made a conscious effort to make the time to discuss critical issues confronting both companies, as well as matters outside of the business.
Pacia: We have always treated our partnership as a family. And just like in any family, there are conflicts. And how does a family resolve disagreements? We talk. Not to argue, but to understand. And at the end of the day, we always treat each other with camaraderie, respect, and love.
Manalo: Aside from the reduced time spent with each other (whether for business or pleasure) due to our busier professional and personal schedules, adapting and evolving with the profession’s developments have always been constant but welcome challenges for us. Over the years, we realized that these are achievable if we maintain our curiosity and passion for progressive architecture and design leadership, which is not that easy! Nonetheless, we always question our assumptions, remain open-minded, and embrace collaboration both in our studios and outside with our colleagues and other professionals.
What about challenges specific to 2020 and 2021? How did you resolve these?
Manalo: With the arrival of the pandemic, the safety and well-being of our team were, and still is, our primary concern. Reducing everyone’s exposure to the COVID-19 virus while allowing ourselves to safely continue the performance of our obligations to our clients was the main challenge last year. After project continuity assessments through dialogue with all of our clients, coupled with worst-case financial projections, we crafted a contingency plan entailing temporary reduction of work hours (instead of work stoppage) while working from home. In this way, we were able to compensate everyone fairly while maximizing productivity.
Though we have long since returned to our regular eight-hour workdays, working from home remains challenging, especially since we at Arkisens are so used to feeding off each other’s energies and ideas in face-to-face interactions. And so, we asked the whole team to fully embrace our current work situation and make the most of it. This means focusing on outcomes and accomplishments rather than on actual time spent on tasks. This also means the partners must trust the team even more, and in the process, empower them anew to achieve the best possible results.
Rivera: 2020 started well for us, actually. We had promising projects lined up at the end of 2019. But when the pandemic hit us, the number one challenge was uncertainty. Projects were put on hold, some were canceled. Another challenge was during the lockdown, no revenues came in for both firms. We really had to stretch our resources. Lastly, the biggest challenge of all was the collaboration of the group. Yes, working from home taught us so many things, but the struggle for us, especially in Arkisens, is how to develop our design ideas since we were so used to working as a group in person. Some decisions and strategies are much easier and faster to address in person than virtually. Still, although the pandemic is not yet over, we are grateful that we survived 2020.
Pacia: For 6X6 Builders, it was our temporary office closure for the duration of the lockdown. Cost-cutting in operations, both for the office and for the active job sites. Becoming undermanned as a result of our cost-cutting measures. These challenges were also our means of surviving the pandemic, so we really just had to ride it out and continue to do so.
What have you done to prepare for 2021?
Rivera: The number one thing that we learned from 2020 is that we have further developed our trust in each other. Working from home posed a lot of challenges, but the platform really is built on trust. Trust among partners and trusting our team. That will carry over in 2021. We had actually been in the process of restructuring the office in late 2019, laying out new systems and parameters to guide the entire organization. The pandemic tested these systems and forced us to develop further what we started in 2019. The strategy for 2021 is to expand our businesses further with better systems in place and a better outlook.
Pacia: We each have our own areas to focus on for 2021, but one of our general action plans, especially for 6X6 Builders, is to make our presence in the industry felt more than ever, to secure more projects from new and existing clients.
Manalo: Aside from existing projects and clients who have continued to engage Arkisens amidst the pandemic, we were also blessed with a good number of new and exciting design commissions towards the end of 2020. These have kept us busy as we crossed over to the new year. We were actually actively hiring before the March 2020 lockdown. Being unable to find the specific applicants we needed then was a blessing in disguise as we were unaware of the impending financial challenges soon to come. But with these new projects on hand, the first quarter of 2021 might prove to be an excellent time to revisit our hiring campaign.
What advice would you give young architects who want to start their own firm during these challenging times?
Rivera: I would still say, just do it. But be sure you are well-equipped with experience, or you can see the bigger picture, so to speak. While you cannot anticipate everything, if you seriously pay attention to what’s happening in the industry, this will guide your decision to start your own firm. Do not be in a hurry, though. Try to gain as much experience as you can and look for mentors to guide you, not just creatively but also in the business of design and construction.
Pacia: Remember to be practical, resourceful, and innovative in presenting and getting your clients to understand your vision. Educate yourself to ensure that you are compliant with all safety guidelines. Don’t cut corners or compromise safety. Again, dig deep and persevere. Offer something that sets you apart from the competition.
Manalo: Starting your own firm and showcasing your design work is arguably so much easier nowadays because of social media. Use it to your advantage. Strive for authenticity. Be true to who you are; figure out early on the values that you stand for. Though we still are young today, J, we were really very young when we started Arkisens. Our passion carried us then and continues to carry us to this day. Passion not just for progressive architecture and design, but also the meaningful relationships we have with each other as partners and friends, and what these relationships have evolved into over the years. These bonds are definitely the motivations behind why we do what we do, and we sincerely hope that you find your ‘Why,’ too. •
From Voltaire ‘Chok’ Manalo’s curriculum vitae: Established in 2005, Arkisens is an award-winning architecture and design practice that challenges established historical models and standardization. The difficulties of a given situation become mechanisms for the emergence of new typologies and relationships. Arkisens manipulates space, creating surfaces that suggest movement and dynamism, insinuating new encounters and experiences for its users.