In the cool of the early morning, we kicked back with a glass of OJ atop a high, wide deck watching impala, wildebeest, and zebra making their way through the South African bush. I marveled at how being a simple deck builder intent on perfecting my craft for the past 18 years had brought me halfway around the world. I was here to teach, but I knew I would also learn.
The Back Story
October 2014 found me teaching at DeckExpo in Baltimore. On the first day, as I was sweeping up my clinic area, two fellows approached and asked me which software I was using to draw my deck designs. I noticed their accent, so asked them where they were from. Nathan and Marc explained that they were from Johannesburg, South Africa, and had flown for 18 hours to get to the DeckExpo. So I invited them into the demo area and proceeded to give them a private demonstration on Real Time Landscape Architect. Afterward, they invited me to join them in the bar at the Hilton.
While I sipped my virgin pina colada, I learned that Nathan and Marc were the owners of Eva-Last, the largest composite-decking manufacturer in Africa. After Marc had put away a few gin and limes, he jovially asked me if I would be willing to come to South Africa. “Sure, why not?” I replied, “Can I bring my wife?”
“Yeah! Bring your wife!”
“Can I bring my kids?”
“Sure, bring ‘em all!”
Fast forward a few months to March 26, 2015, when we (but none of our nine children) found ourselves on a Boeing 777 bound for South Africa. Sometime during the flight, my wife, Linda, asked me, “Have you seen the Eva-Last deck boards?”
“No,” I replied.
Knowing how outspoken I am, Linda asked apprehensively, “What if you don’t like it?”
“I’ll be polite,” I assured her.
In South Africa
Nathan picked us up at the airport and was our conscientious host for the next two weeks. South Africa was a fascinating place filled with all colors of people, and we’re not just talking about skin pigment. It seemed to Linda and me that, although everyone spoke English, each one had their own accent and special way of speaking. We struggled somewhat to understand, but it was loads of fun trying. We caught on finally that “still” water means non-sparkling, and that “now now” means in a while that is sooner than “just now,” but longer than “now.”
Nathan took us to a large private school where Eva-Last was sponsoring a dining deck for an upcoming sports event, and where I finally was able to take a look at the Eva-Last deck board. Like what you'd see on any construction site, the boards were dirty and strewn with tools, but I thought they still looked pretty good. The construction of the deck was with steel substructure. I was surprised at the narrow span between posts and the small size of the beams and joists. I would later learn their reasons.
Later, several Eva-Last executives and our small group of deck builders traveled to the Lowveld, dropping from Johannesburg’s 5,750-foot elevation to about 300 feet above sea level in just five hours. We were headed to a private safari camp on Balule Plains adjacent to Kruger National Park, where we would spend the next four days enjoying the African wildlife, getting to know one another, and learning how each other builds decks.
They Build Decks Differently in South Africa
Over a dinner of poijke and pap (pronounced poy-key and pop, it is lamb stew and firm corn mush), I learned the hows and whys of South African deck building. For one thing, pressure-treated lumber is milled from African Pine, which only grows big enough to make boards up to 2x6. This necessitates framing with 2x4s 16 inches on-center, supported by 2x6 beams screwed to the sides of pressure-treated gum poles (round eucalyptus poles 4 to 6 inches in diameter) that are located on 4-foot centers. The gum poles are buried in the ground two feet deep, and embedded in concrete. Because African pine warps and twists severely, South African deck builders have begun to frame with metal instead, using metal 3 ½-inch-deep steel joists supported by double 2x6 metal beams that are welded to steel posts spaced 4 feet on-center.
When I suggested that deck builders could save money by using larger framing members, I was told that labor is cheap and materials are expensive. Just how cheap is labor in South Africa? The average South African laborer makes about 100 rand per day for a 10-hour day, or about nine U.S. dollars per day. Wait, what? NINE dollars PER DAY?! In the U.S., we can’t even get a teenager to work for less than $9 per hour, let alone get him or her to work a 10-hour day.
Then I pointed out that I thought perhaps workers would be motivated to work better, harder, and more responsibly if they were paid more. “We tried paying some of our best workers a triple wage, but after paying them for the week, the next week they didn’t show up,” one builder explained. Another was curious about the size of my work crew. When I told him that I usually worked with two helpers, he was amazed, and explained that his crews typically consisted of four to eight workers, with at least one person to act as a "babysitter" to prevent the others from lying down and taking naps. They felt that their greatest problem is that the available workforce is uneducated, unskilled, and worst of all, unmotivated.
To help with their labor problems, I suggested that the South Africans tap into a resource that is available nearly everywhere in the world, the LDS Employment Services. I’ve used the service myself, and have found the workers to be nonsmokers, nondrinkers, honest, hard-working, and motivated, and I’m guessing it would be the same wherever you go. In fact, we even met with a representative, which left Nathan enthused about the idea. Anyone can go to the website (ldsjobs.org), click on employers, start an account, and post jobs.
The Eva-Last Story
The next week, we were back in Johannesburg. Marc and Nathan showed us around their headquarters and warehouse, where we examined all of Eva-Last’s deck-board styles, colors, and textures. I consider myself a pretty harsh critic when it comes to decking products, but I have to admit that I was impressed with the look and feel of their decking. Too bad it’s not available in the U.S.
When Nathan and Marc formed Eva-Last about 16 years ago, they began by importing composite decking from the U.S., acting as a distributor. Composite decking was a new idea in South Africa, and they had trouble finding deck builders willing to build with it, so they started the construction arm of the company and began building decks themselves. After a couple of years in the harsh African climate, however, the American-made decking began to fail, they told me. I saw evidence of this as I sat on the CorrectDeck deck at the lodge in Balule Plains.
Relying on Marc’s expertise in the field of chemistry, they began manufacturing their own composite decking boards, designed specifically to withstand South Africa’s extreme conditions. Since then, Eva-Last has gone through 14 generations of deck boards, with the latest version being a capstock with a rotating wood-grain pattern deeply indented into the board on both sides. The look and feel is impressive, especially the deep, rich colors that are unlike anything I’ve seen in the U.S. market. The board is designed for a unique hidden fastener system in which the clips are designed to allow for expansion and contraction in the deck boards, and the clips can be removed and a board replaced in the middle of a deck without your having to remove all of the other boards.
Marc and Nathan claim that their product is holding up very well wherever it is used. Some projects of note include English Point Marina in Mombasa, Kenya, an expansive project with docks, boardwalks, and various levels of decks; Aqua Park in Azerbaijan, where their decking has been used to build a 1 1/2 –mile-long walkway along the Caspian Sea; and in Luangwa Valley, in Zambia, where their decking is used for both decks and floors—in fact, the Chinzombo Bush Camp was voted Best New Safari Property of 2015.
No one in South Africa had ever tried bending deck boards before, so—inspired by my board bending demonstration at the DeckExpo in Baltimore—Marc and Nathan asked me to bring my Heatcon board-bending kit with me and spend a couple of days conducting training sessions on how to bend. Working with Jean and another Eva-Last manager, we built a jig and warmed a board to the right temperature. When the board was ready and I told them to put their gloves on, they began instructing their laborers to put the gloves on. “No-no-no-no,” I said. “You need to put the gloves on and do it yourself.”
They looked surprised, “Us? Do the work ourselves?”
“Yeah, you need to feel the board. This is a tactile experience.”
The managers put on the gloves and bent that board to a radius of 17 feet, while the laborers stood around contentedly watching their bosses doing physical work. I hear that Jean has since bent a board to a nice tight radius of 5-ft. 3-in., and is excited to try an even tighter radius of 3-ft.
To me, deck building is endlessly interesting and fun. Every project is different, like a new canvas to paint on. And the more I travel and meet other deck builders, the more convinced I am that we all tend to be made of the same stuff. Deck builders everywhere are innovative, enthusiastic, good people, who seem to be able to overcome any obstacle placed in their way—it's just the way we're made. And after our experiences learning about deck building in South Africa, we’re even more curious about other places, so who knows where we’ll be going next!