On your marks, set… the race against time

By Eamonn Ryan

When it comes to constructing student accommodation, what focuses the minds of contractors is that the first day of the academic term represents an immovable deadline. It has to be completed before students arrive: a development completed just one week late can only come onto the market a full year later.


Gauteng Piling's Nico Maas on site.

Developer Lapalaka Group and main contractor Khune-Con have until December 2019 to transform what is presently a muddy block at 40 Cookham Avenue in Auckland Park, Johannesburg, into a R38-million secure home-from-home development for University of Johannesburg (UJ) students in the heart of the city’s student precinct.

Their aim is to develop the entire street, with this project involving the demolition of several private homes, and the erection of a three-story residential complex of 63 fully-furnished units or ‘pods’, each containing four bedrooms, a kitchen, fully-serviced bathroom and a small serving counter within a pod; together with social amenities such as sport, entertainment with free Wi-Fi and study facilities, security and 24-hour administration. There’s a mini soccer pitch on the roof. As the location is within 400m walking distance of UJ, parking provision is calculated at a ratio of one parking bay per 33 students.

The demand for tertiary education continues to grow, and a campus such as UJ — in common with other universities — is estimated to have a shortfall of accommodation for about 9 000 students. Home-like amenities are important for youths still lacking life experience, and this development aims to bridge the gap between being at home and out in the world. One of the most popular choices among students is purpose-built student accommodation that enables them to play as well as work. These are secure, managed apartment blocks.

UJ Student Accommodation & Residence Life division is mainly responsible for the accommodation of approximately 19 000 students in both university owned and managed residences as well as off-campus accredited privately owned accommodation. Lapalaka has privately provided several thousand units.

Lapalaka specialises in university accommodation and site 40 Cookham is merely its latest of many such projects. Along with Feemstra, it ranks among the student accommodation market leader developers in the country. Lapalaka, in conjunction with Khune-Con as the main contractor, has developed 1 600 beds in Auckland Park, 1 700 in Pretoria and another approximately 1 000 planned for Auckland Park.

Considering the strong demand for student accommodation, there are a number of developers which specialise in buying plots of land around all universities nationally to develop into student digs. There is considerable innovation in this specialisation: one site in Braamfontein has deployed attached 40-foot containers as rental units.


Gauteng Piling’s on-site supervisor, Victor Mudau.

Wick Burger

Project manager for Khune-Con, Wick Burger


Scope of geotechnical work

The piling contract was awarded to Gauteng Piling — whose expertise and fast establishment capabilities satisfied the client’s requirements, believes Gauteng Piling founder and CEO Nico Maas. The contract is for the installation of 128 piles, about 6m deep, at a value of R800 000. The piling involves about 170m3 concrete and about 7t of steel in the piles.

Maas says the Cookham Road site is “very straightforward for us”. The site is level, but during rainy times it get slippery, which makes it difficult to move the machines and the concrete trucks on site. Indeed, the site visit took place during the height of the April rains (which saw floods in KwaZulu-Natal) and as some of the photos indicate, extremely wet conditions prevailed on site.

Quite apart from rain — which project manager for Khune-Con Wick Burger says was not unexpected and had full contingency plans for — Maas says: “The piles have water from about 4m and special care has to be taken to pour the concrete before the water gets into the pile holes. When it rains and the platform gets wet it is impossible to move and the site was closed for some days. There were no specific complexities about the site, but the safety file took some time to get to the specialist’s satisfaction.

“What was important for us was to get the soil report so we know what’s beneath the surface. We’ve done a lot of work in this area, and while our current site is straightforward, we did piling on a site just across the road which was a nightmare because the underlying soil was very wet and collapsing, requiring special piling methods. In the area around Wits, there are lots of dykes and faults in the geology – and you can get water damming up against such a fault. If the water is dammed up on one side, there’s typically no water on the other side,” says Maas.

The process consists of drilling the piles, and once the required depth is reached, the concrete is poured immediately, at which point a reinforcing cage is inserted. It is thereafter filled to the exact top of pile height. Pile done.

In this instance, the project benefited from a quality geotechnical report, says Maas, taking the guesswork and risk out of the project. He emphasises the importance of the report: “I’ve had jobs where we make a 50% profit, but also a job where we’ve made a 200% loss.”

“I knew an Irishman who used to say, if you drill down six metres, at that level the soil has supported the earth above it for millennia and it will consequently support anything – and most of the time he was correct. But, in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, for instance, you could push a 13m rod down into the ground by hand, and then you really need a geotechnical investigation.”

On site, Gauteng Piling has a single full time employee, the supervisor Victor Mudau — all the rest being hired via labour brokers, an efficiency which means they only employ people when there’s work. Maas claims this is precisely why Gauteng Piling won the contract, and many others like it — “because we’re lean and mean” with minimal head office overheads.

Maas has a word of advice for new civil engineering graduates: “You should be prepared to get out and get your hands dirty. Too many of today’s graduates want to sit behind a computer all day — you don’t learn the job from sitting in an office. The guys I have who ‘get out there’ are able to operate all our equipment.”

Overview of project challenges

Both Khune-Con and Lapalaka are family-owned businesses (Wick works with his father Erhardt, a qualified quantity surveyor who does the QS component of the project). They frequently do JVs on such projects in the area, as well as in Pretoria. They are consequently well known to each other with high levels of trust. Burger says his company prefers to work within trusted relationships and seldom tenders for work.

As the main contractor, Khune-Con was responsible for the demolition, civils work and construction to key handover, explains Burger, as well as external work on roads and pavements. The full civils work used 650m3 of concrete for the ground beams and 27.5t of steel, and 2 500m3 of soil replacement was removed at a cost of R150/m3. The full quantities had not as yet been quantified for the entire structure.

“First we build all the retaining walls around the site to create the platform by doing 150mm layer compactions up to 93% modified Aashto specification. From there we pile to the exact top of pile height, from where we dig our ground beams on top of the piles and from there we build the structure.

“The main challenge with a project of this nature is time. Developers need to be complete on a previous project and ready-to-go before they get the go-ahead on a new one. This is because students sign in mid-February to end-February, and the project has to be complete by then. We therefore start demolitions on the next project in March, which means we have eight months in total to execute. In fact, on the previous project we had only six and a half months, and it was a bigger project than this. If we don’t make it in time … you can’t ask students to move in during July. When you miss a deadline, you miss a year. In terms of penalties, if we’re late a week it can cost the developer a year, so how do you cost that?” It can potentially liquidate a developer that’s not sufficiently financially strong. That explains the need for trusted relationships.

“On some projects I run two nine-hour shifts for months on end to meet the deadline — but it won’t be necessary on this one. This requires us to have all material delivered on time and it consequently can’t be dependent on availability of cash flow. When we’re in full production we get about six truck-loads of bricks a day, and 12 truck-loads of dry-mortar mixes because this can’t be mixed by hand on site. The latter can be stored in silos where we add water to get, say, 10MP or such strength as is required. It’s a class A mortar mix we use. We use Echo precast slabs, where we can, for the floors and ceilings, but some areas require massive spans which have to be done in situ,” says Burger.

Early delivery in itself creates a challenge with logistics because of the built-up nature of the area: bricks are palletised, shrink wrapped and stacked up, with a 4X4 all-terrain forklift telehandler capable of lifting pallets as high as five floors. Double handling of the dry mortar was avoided by mixing it directly on the slab, where water was added. “The silos are consequently just a back-up plan, and to mitigate against potential delays in delivery — after all, we cannot afford to stand idle.”

UJ site

An administrative challenge at the moment is lack of continuity from local authorities. Burger explains that because of a backlog in building permits, local authorities commonly issue a temporary approval, known as a 7(6), but whereas in the past these were issued within 48 hours, last year this was stretched to seven days and this year arbitrarily increased to 40 days. “This lack of consistency plays havoc with planning.”

Burger explains that while they lose two or three days due to wetness during excessive rains, it does not affect production. “We dig pits that drain off the rain and then drizzle on a layer of cement to extract excess moisture, scooping it out as sludge. Then you’ve got compactable soil you can work with.  An engineer can always make a plan to make up the time.”

There was no rock on the site, and Burger explains that this worked in their favour: “You primarily want consistency in the soil. There will always be sagging in a building, but you want consistent sagging — not one portion sagging more than another as this is what creates cracks. If there’s sand on one side and rock the other, you can never compact the sand to exactly the same consistency as the rock and you will get cracks.

“Projects like these are won by planning, adapting, pure grit and knowing the man next to you in the trenches,” says Burger. 

List of professionals:

  • Contractor: Khune-Con
  • Architect: SCS Architects
  • Civil Engineer: Egmont Furstenburg Engineers
  • Quantity Surveyor: Erhardt Burger (Khune-Con)
  • Earthworks: Khune-Con
  • Readymix supplier: Pronto Readymix
  • Geotechnical work and piling: Gauteng Piling

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