'Our Valley Forge Moment': Engineers Seek to Keep Occupy Protesters Warm 'Our Valley Forge Moment': Engineers Seek to Keep Occupy Protesters Warm

'Our Valley Forge Moment': Engineers Seek to Keep Occupy Protesters Warm

by Sam Graham-Felsen

November 12, 2011

On October 29, the Occupy movement faced its greatest test: a freakishly early snowstorm that blanketed encampments across America. The day before the storm, New York City police confiscated generators and fuel at Zuccotti Park—which are banned for safety reasons—so Occupiers shivered their way through the slush. At least one protester in New York was hospitalized for hypothermia.

Meanwhile, MIT Professor of Architecture Jan Wampler, another member of the Winterization Working Group, is organizing MIT students and alumni to develop immediate strategies to combat the cold. For Wampler, who has been called the “People’s Architect,” Occupy Boston is latest chapter in a long career of cause-related design: In 2009, he developed models for sustainable villages in earthquake-ravaged Haiti, and he’s led similar projects in China, Honduras, Turkey, Ecuador, and Sierra Leone.

“Have you ever been in Boston during the winter?” Wampler asks me. When I tell him I grew up in the city, he replies, “So you know how serious this is. The clock is ticking, and I thought architects and engineers could help.”

Wampler recruited about 15 of his students to collaborate with half a dozen alumni, emphasizing that it would be extracurricular, non-credited work (“I’m a veteran of the Vietnam protests, so I’ve learned from the mistakes that were made”). Because of time and funding constraints—not to mention the ban on flammable materials—they are focused on low-tech solutions. Engineers are testing various materials to wrap heated bricks that would give off heat without burning skin. They are also exploring different methods of keeping water hot over long periods of time beyond a simple thermos, which maintains, but doesn’t radiate, heat. And they’re experimenting with different canopy materials to keep snow off of the roofs of tents and create dead air space, which boosts temperature.

“None of this is rocket science,” says Wampler, who recalls how his grandmother would place a hot brick next to his bed for warmth in their unheated farmhouse in rural Ohio. “We’re just bringing back ideas this country had years ago and have since lost.” And Wampler stresses that while the MIT cohort is applying scientific rigor to optimize these low-tech solutions, many of the lay members of the Winterization Working Group are devising, and implementing “very impressive” strategies on their own.

Radachowsky, with support from Wampler’s team, is also building a large inflatable teepee made out of polyethylene tubing that he hopes can be used as a communal “living room” for occupiers. Beyond its symbolic value, the teepee design is highly functional, he says. “Because it’s inflatable, it has some give, so if wind hits, it will flex back up,” Radachowsky explains. “And the steepness of it means it will shed all of the snow.”

Wampler and Radachowsky hope that the innovation at Occupy Boston will spread to other sites. “The whole spirit of this movement is to share as much information as possible,” says Wampler. “And if we can design something absolutely beautiful, it might help with the image of the movement as well.”

I ask Radachowsky the obvious question: Why not just go inside?

“I think it’s very important that we continue to occupy outdoors,” he says. “We’re showing that we really care – that this isn’t just ‘Occu-stock’ where we’re out here just having fun. A lot of us feel like we are planting the seeds of a new kind of society. So we need to hold this space; we need to keep developing our ideas and forming new structures for the society we envision. We’re making our democracy a democracy again, and in a sense, we’re Winter Soldiers.”

A few days ago, Radachowsky bought his first American flag, which he hangs from his Tiny Tiny Home on Wheels.

Photos by Leah Madsen

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'Our Valley Forge Moment': Engineers Seek to Keep Occupy Protesters Warm