The Echo Group, South Africa’s largest hollow-core slab manufacturer, first saw light of day as Constantia Echo (Pty) Ltd in 1982. The company was established to manufacture reinforced hollow-core slabs, initially for the residential market, by a Mr E Cuyvers, a Belgian entrepreneur and founder of Echo Belgium. The plant was located on some farmland adjacent to a sand and stone quarry in Muldersdrift, ±40km north west of central Johannesburg.
Cuyvers’ participation in Constantia Echo was short-lived owing to political pressure on foreign-owned companies to divest from South Africa, and he sold the company to Columbia Consultants in 1989. Then, in 1990, the current chairman and majority shareholder, Peter Lord, bought the company and the name was changed to Echo.
Echo’s productivity and quality were substantially improved under the new team and as a result production in the ensuing 10 years increased eight-fold. To meet the demand, the plant was operated on a 24 hour seven-day-a-week basis.
A second factory was built in 1995 to meet the growing demand for hollow-core panels.It was built in Chloorkop, an industrial township conveniently placed north east of Johannesburg and halfway to Pretoria. The new plant manufactured prestressed hollow-core slabs in longer spans and deeper sections for industrial and commercial markets, thereby opening up new markets for the rapidly expanding group.
The new plant was named Echo Prestress and the original Muldersdrift plant was rebranded as Echo Floors.
Further expansion occurred in 1997 when an existing prestressed hollow-core floor producer in Johannesburg, Fastfloor Systems, was bought as a wholly-owned subsidiary. Current group managing director, Monique Eggebeen, joined Fastfloor two years later and she spearheaded a marketing drive into Botswana. This initiative led to the establishment of a prestressed hollow-core floor plant, Fastfloor Botswana, in Gaborone in 2003, as a joint venture with Grinaker Precast.
In 2005 the Fastfloor facility in South Africa was closed and the production was moved to the newer Echo Prestress plant in Chloorkop, where continual production improvements, including automated concrete placement, facilitated 24 hour shifts and much greater output. Fastfloor’s staff moved across to Echo Prestress and the refurbished Fastfloor plant and some Echo machinery were relocated to Topfloor in Durban, where Echo Durban was established in 2006.
Following a vibrant eight years, the Botswana construction industry was severely affected by the global financial meltdown in 2006 and as a result, Fastfloor Botswana was closed that same year.
In 2011 Echo extended its footprint to Cape Town where a prestressed hollow-core manufacturer, Topfloor was purchased. Peter Lord assumed responsibility for running Topfloor from Cape Town and Monique Eggebeen was appointed group managing director of the two Johannesburg plants and the Durban factory.
The Echo Group has always manufactured to best-practice standards and currently employs in excess of 400 people. The company is an active member of South Africa’s Concrete Manufacturers Association (CMA) and, in collaboration with the latter, was instrumental in setting the national standard (SANS1879) for the manufacture of hollow-core floors in South Africa.
Further collaboration occurred in 2009 when Echo Prestress commissioned the CMA to manage cost case-studies on two medium-rise buildings, Bridgeview, a five-storey load-bearing masonry residential structure in Johannesburg and Capital Park, a seven-storey residential building in Pretoria. Both buildings were built with hollow-core slabs and the case study was conducted to highlight hollow-core’s superior cost attributes over in-situ construction on buildings of up to eight storeys.
Substantial savings in construction costs, 30% in the case of Capital Park and 24% on the Bridgeview project, were realised. These results were authenticated by professional quantity surveyors, and design verification was handled by DG Consulting Engineers (Capital Park) and Knutton Consulting (Bridgeview).
As South Africa lags the developed and much of the developing world in exploiting the advantages of hollow-core and other forms of precast concrete, especially in multi-storey buildings, Bridgeview and Capital Park are watershed developments. Moreover, as the skills pool for in-situ construction diminishes, particularly among small to medium contractors, the demand for hollow-core and other forms of precast concrete looks set for substantial growth.
A more recent project entailed the construction of three office blocks in Boksburg, a town east of Johannesburg. Completed during the first quarter of 2014, Clearwater Offices was built with a steel-frame design. Hollow-core slabs would not normally have been used for this type of application in South Africa. However, by working in close cooperation with the engineers, Tass Engineering and PDS Civil/Structural Engineering, Echo was able to provide a hollow-core solution which was used in combination with the steel frame and some in-situ concrete elements.
The project enabled Echo to introduce a new product, double-cantilevered prestressed panels andfurther steel/hollow-core innovation was achieved with raised roofs which were built using structural-steel window trusses. The trusses support the hollow-core slab roofs and the windows flood the centre of the buildings with additional natural light.
The Echo Group is also making a substantial contribution to solving South Africa’s housing shortage. The use of hollow-core slabs by several high-density housing developers has meant earlier completion times and substantial cost savings. As one of Echo’s major customers says, “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.”
Echo has also promoted the use of prestressed hollow-core for other applications in South Africa, such as retaining walls and security walls.
A recent example was a project known as RMMP1. It involved the construction of a retaining wall by WBHO Ltd., in which hollow-core slabs were used to construct a retaining wall in Menlyn, Pretoria. Echo supplied the panels which were anchored to a concrete foundation and wedged with reinforcing bars. The panels also serve as the external walls for basement parking.
Echo’s prestressed slabs have been used to erect several security walls for one of the largest steel-product manufacturers in the Southern Hemisphere, the Scaw Metals Group, after other types of security walling proved fallible by being repeatedly breached. Begun in April 2011, the project is being undertaken in phases, phase 3 having been completed in April 2013. Phase 4 is due to start in January 2014 and further construction will follow thereafter.
The five metre high walls have been topped with steel palisade fencing. Needless to say there have been no theft incidents in those areas protected by Echo’s walling.
The Echo Group has been a major contributor in the drive to improve the level of education in South Africa.One of South Africa’s rapidly growing private school groups, Curro Schools, has used 35 000m² of Echo’s prestressed slabs to build 12 schools since 2009.