One of South Africa’s prestressed hollow-core concrete slab pioneers, Echo Prestress, is celebrating its 20th year. The company was founded in 1995 when a factory was built in Kempton Park to manufacture prestressed hollow-core slabs. Like all green-shoot business ventures there was no guarantee that the market was ready for a substantial increase in prestressed slab production, especially as in those days the South African construction industry was still largely wedded to what it had been taught and knew best – in-situ construction.
However, Echo Group’s founder and current chairman, Peter Lord, was convinced that certain sectors of the market were ready to convert to prestressed hollow-core construction, given its substantial economic and technical benefits. The fact that Echo Prestress is today South Africa’s largest prestressed hollow-core slab producer as well as the largest company within the Echo Group, bears testament to his foresight. The group itself enjoys the status as the largest hollow-core slab producer in the Southern Hemisphere and is nationally represented with factories in Durban (Echo Durban), Cape Town (Toplfloor) and a second factory in Gauteng, Echo Floors. Moreover, it the only South African company to offer both prestresssed and reinforced hollow-core slabs.
Echo Prestress, managing director, Monique Eggebeen, says that from the outset it was realised that a process of education was required if prestressed hollow-core was to make a significant impact on the South African construction industry.
“This was a task we undertook to do ourselves and we began by conducting plant tours. We found that almost everyone, from contractors to engineers, had never seen the prestressed hollow-core slab manufacturing process before. Precast construction was not a subject covered by universities and over the years we have gone to considerable lengths to lecture third and fourth year engineering students on the application and benefits of the technology. This programme is still ongoing, and in addition to lectures we conduct factory tours and in-house presentations.
“Furthermore, we run seminars in collaboration with the Concrete Manufacturers Association NPC (CMA) and we’ve brought international experts such as Kim Elliott to South Africa for this purpose. We have also formed a CPD seminar and conference facility through the South African Institute of Architects and those who attend these presentations earn CPD points,” says Eggebeen.
Another aspect of Echo Prestress’ pioneering role was the introduction of the SABS mark for the prestressed hollow-core slab manufacture.
“The SABS mark offers a huge marketing advantage and once again, we worked hand-in-hand with the CMA in introducing a standard. We are very proud of our association with the CMA and have run several other projects with the Association.
“Besides manufacturing to the SABS standard, we are ISO 9001 2008 management system compliant. I believe we’re a step ahead of the market and we constantly challenge ourselves, especially on a technical level. This has resulted in new applications such as security walling and retaining walls, as well as composite construction suitable for steel and concrete frame structures.
“As market leaders we need to demonstrate that we are the most technically advanced hollow-core slab producer. Internal skills development and in-house training plays an important role in this regard. They ensure that our personnel are up to the mark in all aspects of our industry. Knowing that we have a highly skilled work force gives us tremendous confidence to penetrate and establish new markets,” says Eggebeen.
Echo marketing director, Melinda Esterhuizen, cites another reason why Echo Prestress has grown the demand for prestressed hollow-core slabs. She says the company is no ‘slab pusher’, but offers a complete service-orientated flooring solution.
“The first thing we look at on any project is whether prestressed hollow-core would be the most suitable technology. Sometimes we find that a hybrid solution, where prestressed slabs are combined with in-situ construction, works best. And in some instances we recommend combining prestressed slabs with other forms of precast concrete such as beams and columns.
“We work very closely with construction professionals to make sure we meet all their design criteria, both aesthetically and structurally. Our in-house design facility and our technical department examine aspects such as slab depth, reinforcing, spans and loading, which is why all our slabs are purpose-made for every project. We also take responsibility for slab installation so that when we walk off site the contractors have a completed working platform.
“We also maintain close liaison with principal site engineers and this saves the developers time and money. And where appropriate, we make recommendations on how best to apply prestressed technology to their projects. For example, they may have used 340mm in-situ flooring and in certain instances we might propose 250mm prestressed slabs as a viable alternative.
“It’s taken us a long time to tap into the industrial and commercial construction markets and our policy of educating students and construction professionals is now bearing fruit. We form long-term relationships with our customers through our total solution service offering and by providing them with consistent quality,” observes Esterhuizen
Down the years Echo Prestress has made a substantial contribution to solving South Africa’s housing shortage. Esterhuizen says the 21st Century has seen South African professionals making increasing use of precast hollow-core slabs for the construction of multi-storey buildings and for the extension of existing structures. Some recent housing projects include the supply of precast concrete hollow-core slabs for the construction of upper-level flooring in multi-storey apartment blocks at two Gauteng retirement villages, Featherbrooke Hills Retirement Village and Olivedale Retirement Village. Another is The William, a middle-income high-density residential development, where 110 eight-unit apartment blocks were constructed in northern Johannesburg. Other recent projects include Jabulani, a high density sectional title development in Soweto, and Fleurhof, an integrated housing project south west of Johannesburg.
The MTN Data Centre, Phase 2, which necessitated the addition of a second floor, is an example of how prestressed flooring can be used to add a storey to an existing building, saving time and money.
Commenting on the MTN project Esterhuizen said that precast hollow-core slabs are to the construction industry what cell phones are to modern communications – fast, flexible, multi-functional and cost-effective.
The use of hollow-core slabs by several high-density housing developers has meant earlier completion times and substantial cost savings. As Rodney Gray, managing director of Balwin Properties says, “prestressed hollow-core slabs provide us with fantastic quality and high standards which far outweigh in-situ or beam-and-block flooring. In fact precast concrete is what makes high-density housing viable for us.”
One example of prestressed slabs diversity is security walling. Several walls have been erected, one of the latest being a wall for the Scaw Metals Group. The wall was commissioned after other types of security walling proved fallible by being repeatedly breached.
Eggebeen believes that the prospects for prestressed hollow-core slab growth in southern Africa is extremely bright and that during the next 10-15 years the market will enjoy substantial growth. Part of the reason is that the skills pool for in-situ construction is diminishing. Other factors include quicker construction times, superior sound insulation and thermal properties, and the consistent quality that an SABS certified prestressed factory provides.