Profile in Innovation: Following the Swedish Way – How TermoDeck is on a Mission to Change the Way we Build

city view of buildings

Profile in Innovation: This article is one in a series that will highlight new and innovative technologies and profile people making a mark in support of the passive house community’s efforts to decarbonize buildings.

By Adam Elliott Segal

“Canada today is like Sweden in 1995,” Ghassan Nimry says. The Director of Eco-Structures International and a partner in the Swedish-owned TermoDeck, a revolutionary building technology that is slowing gaining a foothold in North America after decades in the European and Middle Eastern markets, is refreshingly frank when it comes to regulatory practices in the North American building industry. “When I showed [my Scandinavian partners] apartment buildings where the fresh air is next to zero, they said that should be illegal.”  

Nimry believes it should be made more difficult to build badly, “and more beneficial to build well,” he says. Incentivizing sustainable developers and punishing bad actors is not a new concept, but it’s certainly not industry standard across Canada, across provinces or even across municipalities. Cue TermoDeck, which has been in operation across the Atlantic since 1978 and boasts over 430 commercial projects globally, namely banks and offices. Recently, the company completed its first large residential apartment complex in Sweden, a trend that Nimry, who moved to Canada during the COVID-19 pandemic, is hoping sticks around in the latest country he calls home. It’s relatively simple if you ask Nimry.  “If you ask people, ‘What do you want?’ they will say, ‘I want to live in a house that’s economical, healthy, and safe.’  

The developer has a storied history as a global eco-builder. Originally from Jordan, he grew up in Lebanon before moving to Libya, where his father worked. Escaping civil war, he moved to England, then to the US, where he studied engineering and finance. “I’ve worked predominantly on projects that do both,” he says. His background includes all facets of the industry, from construction and power generation to hydrocarbons and mining. His interests are varied by design. “I’ve actively sought to do different types of projects and work in different fields because I’ve discovered later on that things you learn in field number one will have an impact on other fields,” Nimry says. As director at Eco-Structures, he views the climate challenge “as an extraordinary opportunity to transform ‘business as usual’ to ‘business as it should be.’” 

That challenge extends to his current role. He became “infected,” as he calls it, by TermoDeck after meeting the Swedish management team in 2006 and has spent his career criss-crossing the globe and spreading the green gospel, from the Middle East to London and now to Canada where he lives with his family in Unionville, Ontario. The core tenets of TermoDeck run through all his business ventures — build better, build sustainable, be cost-effective — and he’s on a mission to change North American development practices.  

TermoDeck runs counter to traditional building methods. The company uses hollow core concrete floor slabs to trap cold or hot air, depending on the climate. Storing cool energy in the Middle East versus trapping warm energy in Scandinavian countries are two very different things, but the slabs, using Thermal Energy Storage (TES), heavily reduce the load on the grid as air passes through the hollow parts of the slabs and is then stored for future use. 

Slabs means less mechanical parts such as ducts and radiators and no need to rely on conventional HVAC systems, another cost-effective tool that lessens the load on the building’s energy usage and reduces the burden on the supply chain. There’s also the simple construction case to be made of fewer false ceilings every six floors. “Imagine somebody saying you’re building 30 floors, but you’re not actually building 30 floors, you’re building 36 floors, and every sixth floor is occupied by ducts and tubes and pipes,” Nimry explains. Add to the fact: noise pollution is effectively eliminated when typical heating and cooling systems are replaced by concrete slabs. “An efficient silencer,” the company’s website says.  

TermoDeck buildings come with immediate energy savings — the reduction in cooling loads, for example is 35-50% according to their data. The company even ensures a drop in construction time — the slabs are weather-friendly to install, prefab, and quick to fit with mobile cranes. Most TermoDeck structures are found across Scandinavia, England, and Saudi Arabia, but in Canada, the best examples can be found in the education system — Sheridan College, Brock University, and the Academic Building at Humber College in Ontario are feature TermoDeck certified buildings, the latter 6,970 square feet. 

In some ways, the technology seems like a no-brainer. So why hasn’t North American adopted it? Nimry suggests developers are stubborn, even lazy, and not open to learning progressive, new ways to build sustainable housing, even if it’s cost-effective. “Education is a long-term thing,” Nimry says. He likes to tell a story about a 19th century Hungarian doctor living and working in Vienna who recognized women were dying at high rates during childbirth at a medical clinic. A hospital run by midwives across the street had lower death rates, and after investigating, he discovered the culprit: handwashing. Despite identifying cleanliness as the reason for more deaths, the doctors refused to change for decades. The Hungarian eventually went mad and died in an institution.. 

Change, it seems, comes ever so slowly for those fighting climate change, and this tale seems to resonate with Nimry because often it feels like a crusade trying to convince companies that becoming climate-forward is cost-effective. Institutional developers, as it stands, are more interested in status quo than sustainability.  

That doesn’t mean he won’t keep trying. Nimry was familiar with passive house standards from his time living in Europe. “When I moved to Canada, I reached out to Passive House through a contact. I got to know Chris and was immediately captivated by his knowledge and drive. He made a huge effort to make Passive House more than a niche entity and build the membership base and build visibility. Passive House is a tremendous technology. It should be standard, in my opinion — it shouldn’t be an option. If you want to be opposed to it, then you have to explain why you don’t have the data. The other thing is to be fair to the industry. Some of the suppliers to passive house rated homes are expensive. They feel they can charge a premium and extract a huge profit.” 

Nimry is in it for the long haul, and the newest Passive House member has a piece of advice for anyone interested in building green and building better, while still maintaining reasonable profit margins for all levels of the supply chain. “The most dangerous phrase in English language is ‘we’ve always done it this way.’” 

 Ghassan Nimry is Director of Eco-Structures International and a partner in TermoDeck.