Recently, Franki Africa celebrated 70 years of piling in South Africa. As Franki is probably the longest-established South African piling contractor and when one considers that 70 years is an average single lifespan, it demonstrates that our local piling industry is actually quite young in global terms.
Most of our piling contractors today are owned or have senior directors who stem from a handful of companies of origin: Frankipile, GEL (Ground Engineering Limited), McLaren & Eger (which ceased trading in 1988), Murray & Roberts Piling (which stopped trading in the 1990s), Dura Soletanche Bachy (which ceased piling operations in 2017), Esor, and a few others.
The understanding of piling and foundation is difficult to obtain from textbooks or classrooms and therefore, a lot of training is derived from the early pioneers of piling in South Africa, whether as rig operators, crane operators, tradespeople, or workshop managers. These are the technical people that keep the industry going. However, like so many aspects of contracting, many of these people are generally older people who started young in the industry and worked their way into senior posts.
Mega Pile Inland MD Greg Whittaker describes this as a changing of the guard. There are exceptional engineers in the industry, but most are in their late 60s and are being forced to retire from the corporate arena. As a result, some piling and lateral support companies are run by corporate or non-geotechnical people and this is bringing about a distinct change in management style, with a focus more on business and commercial management at the expense of technical knowledge.
Being a piling supervisor, senior rig operator, site manager, or contracts manager requires a certain passion for managing the unknown.
Each piling and lateral support company has its favourite brand when it comes to equipment. In the case of Mega Pile Inland, Whittaker attributes the growth of his business to his decision at the beginning to opt for the ‘Rolls Royce’ of rigs: Bauer. Construction professionals are notoriously slow to change, and an illustration of this, says Whittaker, is that many piling companies tend to stay with the same equipment they started out with. This is because the equipment is rarely traded in, and they enjoy long lives — so strong relationships develop over time.
Whittaker says: “In 1996, we were the first to import a Bauer rig, from Poland, whereas at that time, the large competitor companies tended to have Soilmec and Casagrande equipment (both Italian). Today, we are the biggest private fleet owner of Bauer equipment in South Africa. Bauer is the most expensive — it is also the most technically specced to operate and the most reliable and hardy.
The Bauer piling rigs can drill through anything with the appropriate rotary or percussion head and tooling. We are able to offer our clients the ‘most cost-effective and innovative solution for piling or lateral support’.” Other brands still make sales based on price and the quality of long relationships. “You know the equipment and how it works, you know the people — a relationship develops and you stick with it.” As a relative newcomer, Mega Pile Inland never had that legacy situation: it chose Bauer from the beginning. The company has since stuck with Bauer — “for good reason”, says Whittaker. He explains that with his previous company, they had used home-made equipment that was “not mechanically sound or safe”.
“It did the job, but you can do it a whole lot better and faster with a Bauer,” which is also specced to stringent European equipment and safety standards. The local market for equipment is not as highly regulated, he adds. A 60t Bauer can be remotely controlled in unsafe conditions, for instance. “We have had this done; they have all the drawings in German and commission a local technician to come out and supervise — or even a Germany-based technician.”
That is for piling, and Whittaker explains that they use a broader range of brands for lateral support, as each brand tends to have a best-of-breed, and Mega Pile Inland cherry-picks each of these. It has Furakawa, for instance, as well as Casagrande and Comacchio. This equipment tends to be smaller and is applicable to mining as much as lateral support. “Each one specialises in a slightly different way: you may need an extremely small rig for limited access; another one that’s sturdier, for instance.”
One of those ‘early pioneers’ of piling is Nico Maas, CEO of Gauteng’s second-largest piling company, Gauteng Piling, a firm that has 16 large auger piling machines.Maas says his firm has opted not to specialise in a single make of equipment. It has a variety of hydraulic and non-hydraulic machines either on wheels or on tracks, including Williams diggers, MT diggers, Casagrande, and Soilmecs. “We like what we have in terms of the specs and we still compete very well in all circumstances.”
MegaPile Inland is involved in the R10-billion five-year Mercedes Benz refurbishment and expansion of its plant in East London. This is a complex project that is not for the faint-hearted, with R150 000/ day penalties for late delivery, says Whittaker. The investment will be used to build a new paint shop and a new body shop and to upgrade the assembly shop and new logistics warehouses.
The refurbishment will enable the car manufacturer to produce the next generation of C-Class vehicles at the East London plant. “It is tremendously pressurised, employing contractors who work during the year-end shutdown period (which is the only time the entire plant shuts down), as well as 24-hour work. We are piling in a vast area of rock, boulders, and concrete (from previous works) of what is atrocious conditions because nobody knows what’s under there. It’s an interesting job in which we are employing a selfdrilling anchor technique (SDA). This involves installing a small hollow bar into a small hole which is percussion drilled and grouted. It is this minipile configuration that carries the load of the structure above.”
Another option for piling is dynamic compaction, which was not used on this site, but which is also sometimes employed when ground conditions do not suit piling. Whittaker says this option would normally be used only on a large site. “It is not an exact art, and there can be complications if it is not done correctly. It is also timeconsuming.”
It has, for instance, been used on the CEOCO project, profiled in this month’s On Site feature (page 12). Mega Pile company has also been involved in a prestigious project called Sandton Court in the heart of Rivonia, which was interesting from the viewpoint that it was surrounded by developed adjacent properties and therefore needed considerable piling and lateral support to protect the walls from caving in as the contractor excavated down. The company is also involved with developer Interprop on the piling and lateral support for the Oxford Parks Development, on Oxford Road, Rosebank, where there are five mixed-use precincts being established at the moment. “We’ve also recently completed a project called ‘Rockefeller’ on the foreshore in Cape Town, having only recently opened our branch in the Mother City.”
Gauteng Piling has recently been involved in the Atria project in Waterfall: consisting of two office buildings, Atria East and Atria West, which when complete will comprise approximately 7 000m² each, with floor plates that will range between 1 300m² and 1 500m², a 180-bedroom hotel, and 120 residential apartments. Maas says their component of the project consists of about 240 piles. “It was interesting because the ground had areas of shallow rock and we had to drill into the very hard rock to get the uplift capacity required for two cores. We prefer to stick to our knitting of augered piles, although we also do various other types of piles.”
Franki Africa is well represented on the continent, having recently completed projects in Mauritius, Angola, Ghana, Mozambique, Tanzania, Uganda, Swaziland, Botswana, and Zambia. One of Franki’s project achievements of late is the piling it undertook at the Multisports Complex, Mauritius. This involves the construction of a new sports complex for the Indian Ocean Games scheduled for July 2019 at Côte d’Or, St Pierre, Mauritius, and includes athletic training grounds and track, a football pitch, an aquatic centre, and a multipurpose gym on behalf of Mauritius Multisports Infrastructure Limited. In an article on Franki’s website, Mauritius country manager Yannis Mongelard says that the tender, which was launched in December 2017 with anticipated start in early 2018, stipulated 96 days for the piling work. “This was not possible for a host of different reasons at that time,” he says.
“We submitted a solution which was cheaper, allowed for an earlier start and which could considerably cut down on the length of the job under normal circumstances. Moreover, it enabled us to work with the plant we had on the island at the time, which contributed significantly to the cost saving on the project.” Mongelard adds that from the original piling-only solution in the tender, Franki further enhanced efficiencies with a solution comprising a mix of piling and ground improvement. “The original tender specs involved the installation of more than 850 temporary cased auger piles of various sizes drilled to an average depth of 21m. Our ultimate solution comprised ground improvement in conjunction with a mix of piling techniques optimised to support each of the structures.”
He explains that piling and ground improvement was required, following geotechnical investigations that found worse-than-expected ground conditions. “Moreover, the required bearing capacity of the backfilled soils could not be achieved, so deep foundations (piles) were opted for.” While these solutions could have cut down on production time, it turned out that high rainfall and the clayey platform made it almost impossible to achieve the daily minimum production from the start. In addition, the platform works could not proceed because theearthmoving vehicles were unable to work efficiently. In this regard, Franki requested a thick stone mattress in lieu of the soft soil platform. This was provided, drastically improving productivity. The piling works started early June 2018 and, in terms of budget, the cost of Franki’s alternative solution will still be less than the original alternative solution — hence the project is within budget.
The sector is “probably in its worst position in 50 years”, says Whittaker. But in fact, Mega Pile Inland has recently enjoyed a growth spurt. Whittaker had until last year been under a restraint agreement from his previous Durban-based partnership (Mega Pile) and on its expiry, from 1 March, has opened a new operation in KwaZulu-Natal called KZN Piling, as well as in the Cape Town market, where there had been a close-knit number of players. The company has also expanded into the mining sector with Mega Mining.
Being coastal locations, Durban and Cape Town require a different type of pile because it is typically soft sands and saturated ground, explains Whittaker, and for this reason, not many inland companies have ventured to the coast. It does sometimes work in reverse: Whittaker himself commenced his career in Durban in 1996.
Another KwaZulu-Natal-based piling company to have gone national is VNA Piling, which describes itself as “well acquainted with demanding soil profiles in South Africa — and particularly in the Durban and Richard’s Bay areas with high water tables and collapsing ground”. Almost two decades ago, it took this experience to Gauteng, Cape Town, and surrounding areas as well as neighbouring states, where numerous projects have been successfully undertaken. VNA Piling has now taken to the lateral support market — and has already successfully completing numerous projects in Gauteng and neighbouring states.
• Franki (internationally owned by Keller) is the biggest player in the market and one of the few national players;
• Mega Pile (both Inland and Coastal, separate companies);
• GEL (Ground Engineering Limited) may be in the process of being sold off by troubled parent company Aveng, which is selling off its civil engineering business piecemeal;
• Dura ceased trading last year after 55 years, having been an industry giant in the 1980s employing 200 people;
• Gauteng Piling, which is wholly owned by the Maas family;
• Stefanutti Stocks;
• Terra Strata Construction;
• VNA Piling; and
• Fairbrother Construction.
Whittaker says his business is thriving despite this environment, and it has developed a model “which is working”. It retains essentially a small company culture, which embraces personal family values amid a closeknit dynamic, with “a hallmark of innovation”, he explains. Whittaker says that notwithstanding the demise of so many contracting companies — like Liviero Building, Group Five, Basil Read, Esor, NMC Group and more — the piling and lateral support market remains fiercely competitive, though the fallout presents a real opportunity to expand.
Consequently, he has ordered additional plant and equipment. He describes the company strategy as being to remain in the mid-tier market, which is able to take on the bigger competitors for “mega” projects due to a lower overhead structure, but also able to compete at the bottom-tier (residential) end of the market where the bigger players simply could not operate with their corporate overheads. “It’s difficult for these big corporate contractors to survive because they need large infrastructure projects and the government isn’t putting those jobs out at the moment, and even if they are, they’re not paying [on time]. We’re satisfied to be where we are in this mid-tier market.”
Innovations in piling and lateral support tend to be in installation techniques and small, everyday improvements in efficiency in concrete, grout, shotcrete, and slurry mixes. “We will always look at these to see how we can make it more cost-effective. You gain an edge in this sector by installing more metres production a day than your competitors.”