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

A ragtag group of revolutionary biologists, engineers, and architects from MIT, Harvard, and beyond are fighting to keep the movement alive and warm.

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.

The fear began to spread: Is Occupy on its last legs? New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg seemed skeptical of the movement’s resolve; asked how long he believed it would last, he replied: “I think part of it probably has to do with the weather.” The New Yorker’s Hendrik Hertzberg worried that winter would “pare the numbers in the camps,” leaving just the hardline radicals, who he feared, might opt for “more provocative, less mellow forms of civil disobedience” and “mess up the message.” Occupiers began to call it their “Valley Forge moment.” Could they, like George Washington’s Continental Army, survive a Northeast winter?

Enter the geeks. At Occupy Boston, a short walk away from the site of the (actual) Tea Party, a ragtag group of revolutionary biologists, engineers, and architects from MIT, Harvard, and beyond are fighting to keep the movement alive and warm.

Among those in Occupy Boston’s Winterization Working Group is Sage Radachowsky, a biochemist who conducts research at Harvard’s Girguis Laboratory. He’s been sleeping in what he calls his “Tiny Tiny Home on Wheels,” a coffin-like structure that he says has been keeping him “so warm that I often sweat at night and need to remove layers.”

Radachowsky, 37, was drawn to technology at an early age. He got his first computer in 1980—a Radio Shack Color Computer that boasted four kilobytes of memory—and spent his spare time programming. As he got older, he lost interest in computers and “started focusing more on human beings than technology,” dropping out of Renssalaer Polytechnic Institute after one semester. After 9/11, while pursuing his master’s degree in sociology, Radachowksy was arrested in a protest against the war in Afghanistan. Charged with two felonies for his conduct—Radachowsky disputes the charges—he was on trial for eight months and set free on $35,000 bail.

After many years of working as a carpenter, Radachowsky returned to the tech world in hopes of climbing out of his massive debt. He worked as a volunteer on MIT’s solar car project, and soon got a full-time job working at a small company that built electronics to harvest energy from microbes. After the company was bought out, he followed his boss to the Girguis Lab, where he is currently working on developing clean liquid fuel.

Radachowsky fashioned his Tiny Tiny Home (an extreme iteration of the growing Tiny House movement) out of a TV cabinet that he found in the trash, plus plywood, Styrofoam, and three layers of clear polyethylene sheets—which create a transparent dome to let light in. The entire project cost just $100, making it replicable for other protesters. The structure is elevated, creating distance between the icy ground and Radachowsky’s body. And unlike the three-season tents most Occupiers use, the Tiny Tiny Home is insulated and has a sturdy roof that will resist being crushed under the weight of heavy snow. Most importantly, Radachowsky is able to skirt the ban on solid structures at the Occupy Site because he added bicycle wheels and a tow hitch. Technically, it’s not a “permanent structure,” so it’s allowed. Radachowsky says the General Assembly is weighing his proposal for a $1,000 allocation to build 10 more Tiny Tiny Homes for Occupiers, and he’s optimistic that it will be approved.

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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