"Operation Flat Pack" is the biggest project of this kind that the British Army has ever undertaken. "We think it may be the biggest in the world," says Tim Walton, a 50-year-old building surveyor at Loughborough University and a major in the Territorial Army. "It's a complete mobile town, and rebuilding it is like a trip to Ikea – you just take the house out of its container and snap it together."
More than 20,000 troops are now serving in British-controlled southern Iraq, many living under canvas or in bombed-out buildings and palaces that belonged to Saddam Hussein's Ba'ath Party. But fears have been growing that the army will get bogged down in mud and sludge and if they are forced to remain in their tents and temporary accommodation throughout the rainy winter months. Hence Operation Flat Pack.
Dismantling a small town and rebuilding it thousands of miles away in an intermittent war-zone calls for specialist skills – which is where the construction industry comes in. In March, key construction personnel were called up by their TA regiments – to the concern of some in the industry who worried about possible disruption (see Building, 21 February, page 11). Only now has it become clear that they were needed for their skills in dismantling and reassembling the flat-pack town.
The accommodation modules used by the army are called Kudos units, and they are made by a British company of the same name. The units will provide homes for more than 3500 troops in a series of 500-capacity camps. These will be located both at the main British command headquarters at Basra International Airport and at the base at Shaibah, near the Kuwaiti border.
Shipping the mobile homes from Kosovo to the Gulf started in February. At the time it was feared that many would not survive dismantling and rebuilding. Walton, who heads a 10-strong group of Territorial Army soldiers sent to the Gulf to assemble the town, says he had been prepared for losses of "up to 25%". "Luckily, though, that hasn't happened, and everything has gone reasonably smoothly so far," he says.
The mobile homes, which are each made up form 10 elements, arrived in six shiploads of containers, along with nearly 400 toilets, 350 shower units, and scores of snap-together communal kitchens and laundries. Each module comes with two bunk beds, wardrobes, tables and chairs, as well as an inbuilt air-conditioning unit, lighting and plugs for electrical appliances.
Operation Flat Pack is the biggest project of this kind that the Army has ever undertaken. We think it may be the biggest in the world
Major Tim Walton
Walton commands a regiment containing a mix of construction disciplines: surveyors, builders and other construction experts, whose responsibilities include installing the plumbing, electrics and sewage system for the new towns. In addition, the engineers will be erecting stilts to lift the modules clear of the muddy ground.
The team is working "flat out" so that everything can be up and running for the new year. Walton says: "The tented accommodation is OK, but we don't quite know how the ground they are sited on will react when it rains. It may absorb all the water, or it may become waterlogged. But we hope to be ready for the army to move into the units by new year."
He adds that the army commanders had understood the importance of boosting the troops' morale by having proper roofs over their heads during the winter nights, when temperatures drop to well below freezing. To ensure the project is completed before the weather turns, the TA is training teams of Iraqis and Kuwaitis to do the labouring work.
Providing employment for the local people was always part of the plan, even though this has brought its own problems. Captain Graham Gregson, from Calverley, West Yorkshire, can more usually be found working as a health and safety adviser for housebuilder Persimmon Homes. He says there is no health and safety culture in Iraq and that it has been a considerable challenge to ensure the work is carried out without injuring anybody. Their tactics appear to be working: "I'm pleased to say we haven't had any major injuries so far," says the 38-year-old.
Sapper Martin Simpson, 25, a building services engineer at Hoare Lea's Birmingham office, is impressed with the newly trained workforce. He says Iraqis are hardworking and they appreciate the money they are now earning. But having Iraqis on the base has to be handled carefully: "It has been a real international effort co-ordinating everybody, and for security reasons it is sometimes difficult even getting them in and out of the base," he says.