A new form of self-improvement - an MSc in Refurbishment. By Roger Trapp
As is demonstrated by the excitement over this week's unveiling of Sir Norman Foster's plans for a London Millennium Tower, public attention to the construction world centres on new buildings. In fact, though, converting old buildings accounts for a greater share of construction companies' spending.

And while there is no shortage of courses for budding Sir Normans, many in the industry perceive a lack of training in this less glamorous field.

In an effort to respond to this situation, University College London's highly regarded Bartlett Graduate School has launched a part-time post- graduate course in the subject. The architecture, design and planning school set up the MSc in Refurbishment two years ago with the help of funding from the Wates Foundation, established by the company of that name.

In keeping with the institution's aims of providing a practical qualification, the course, which is seen as unique, is divided into three areas: management, including marketing and construction economics; contracts; and buildings themselves. Rather than concentrate too heavily on the architecture aspect, this last module features a focus on the history of buildings, in order to encourage students to think creatively about how old buildings may be converted for modern use. "Throughout the course, students are encouraged to think of refurbishment in the wider context of construction development," says UCL.

According to Peter McFadzean-Ferguson, the course director, the MSc is not only one of a kind, it also has an unusual approach to imparting knowledge. "Much of the learning is promoted by seminars and workshops held by industry leaders together with academic staff," he said recently. He adds that the college is also looking to establish a body of knowledge in the growing field of refurbishment management, to become a recognised international centre of excellence and to raise the intellectual profile of refurbishment in the construction industry.

Open to surveyors, architects and project and contract managers, it is specifically designed to suit people who are already in work. In addition to being taught on a day-release basis, it balances management theory with the development of knowledge and skills using seminars and case studies.

Mr McFadzean-Ferguson says the course "aims to use theory to interpret practice, and to provide a strategic overview to what otherwise will appear to be isolated problems solved in isolation."

Though only a few people have attended the course in its fledgling years, Mr McFadzean-Ferguson and his UCL colleagues are pleased with the standard. Most of those who are just graduating have either found new jobs or been promoted at their companies during the course.

One of those on the first intake of the course told New Civil Engineer magazine that the course had opened his eyes to many things, "such as the relevance to refurbishment design of knowing why a building was originally designed as it was". Another said the programme had provided him with both new ideas and "the language and tone in which to articulate these".

Wates initially provided two years' financing, and has just pledged the funds for a third, but the school is seeking to put the course on a more permanent footing. Consequently, contractor Kyle Stewart, which has already sponsored a student on the course, has been approached for long-term backing.

The company - a UK arm of the European construction group HBG - has responded by proposing the setting up of a consortium made up of clients and consultants as well as contractors like itself. Phil Beckwith, director of Kyle Stewart, said: "I believe the consortium will be successful in developing a spirit of partnership in two ways. First, it will act as a forum to bring together the different parties to the refurbishment process - the client, building user, developer, consultant, contractor and specialist sub-contractor. Second, by bringing this forum into partnership with the academic world, it will focus education and research in refurbishment management on the needs of the industry."

Mr Beckwith, who believes the course could help to bring about the changes in attitude recommended by the recent Latham Report, is proposing that the initial core of the consortium be formed by two clients, two contractors, one consultant and one specialist sub-contractor.

Besides helping to fund the development of the course and supplying students, consortium members would give advice on the make-up of the course, attend open seminars and assist as link partners in research and conferences.

"By providing joint management education and training for middle management from clients, consultants and contractors, the course can foster understanding and genuine teamwork between the parties," he added.