MIT Team Works To Winterize Occupy Boston

MIT architecture professor Jan Wampler is drafting a redesign of the Occupy Boston encampment to protect it from the cold. The small wood structure on his desk is a model teepee that he believes could be used to slough snow off protesters' tents. (WBUR Photo)

BOSTON — Winter is quickly approaching, but protesters at the Occupy Boston encampment say they are staying put. In fact, they’ve won a temporary restraining order that makes it harder for the city to kick them out of Dewey Square. But a Massachusetts Institute of Technology architecture professor says the camp can’t make it through the winter as is, so he’s drafting a redesign of the site to protect the protesters and their tents from cold and snow.

MIT architecture professor Jan Wampler and about a dozen MIT students and alumni are doing voluntary consulting for Occupy Boston’s “winterization working group.” WBUR’s All Things Considered host Sacha Pfeiffer visited Wampler at his office and asked him what the Occupy protesters are up against as temperatures drop.

Prof. Jan Wampler: If you’re camping on the ground when it’s frozen, you’re basically on top of an iceberg.

Sacha Pfeiffer: It’s really cold.

Very cold. And your body heat goes very quickly out. So the big issue is how you can insulate your body from the ground.

And you had an idea for that, which was put wooden pallets beneath the tents.

That’s correct. That was the first idea, because an air space between you and the cold is the best. But we were told that we couldn’t have wood.

By the city.

By the city. I think the reason was that it’s perhaps a fire hazard. Then we tried to do that with plastic pallets. But that wasn’t possible, as I understand, because it might create a place for rodents to be. So now we’re back to trying to find ways of putting heavy insulation on the ground — two inches of foam or more — and then the sleeping bag would go over that.

You also have made the point that when snow starts to fall, which it inevitably will in Boston, those tents are going to be smothered in snow. So what do you do to keep the tents upright when the snow comes down?

Two issues, first of all. They’re going to be smothered. The second is, how do you get rid of the snow? And it’s interesting — we’ve come back to the Native American teepee, which was a beautiful invention.

These models we’re looking at on your desk…

Are made out of wood, yes.

Tiny wood models of teepees.

That’s correct.

Which you would put on top of the protesters’ tents?

Exactly. And the point of that is that the snow then slides off the teepee. So this is like an outer shell, if you wish.

Like an umbrella for a teepee.

A big umbrella, but it’s also providing a dead air space between the outside surface and their tents on the inside.

I’m assuming that even if the city signs off on a way for you to get people off the ground and to protect the tents with teepees, it’s still going to be very cold inside those teepees. So how do you warm people inside their tents?

One way is to heat water off the site, bring it to the site, and then have the people living there fill water bottles they can take to sleep with them. A second idea is — from my experience of growing up — a hot brick in the bed at night.

Like in the old days.

I lived in a house that didn’t have any heat, in a farmhouse. And that would keep you warm all night.

Until morning?

Yeah, the brick would still be relatively warm. Not hot, but warm.

Many of the ideas that you’ve proposed have been rejected by the city. Is that frustrating?

Very frustrating, yes.

Is your sense that the ideas that have been rejected are legitimate rejections? Or that the city may be hoping that if it just keeps saying no, these protesters will eventually go away?

I can’t say. I think the city’s point of view should be, obviously, for the health and welfare of the people there. On the other hand, I haven’t understood exactly why some of the ideas that have been rejected relate to health.

I understand you are a veteran of the Vietnam War protests.

That’s correct.

Does that mean the Occupy movement is one that you’re sympathetic with?

Oh yes, very much so.

Do you think that once March, April roll around, once spring comes, there actually will have been protesters who stayed in Dewey Square throughout the whole winter?

I think so, based on my conversations with the people that are there. They’re very energetic and they’re very determined to stay there. Yes, I do.

So you think unless the city or the police oust them, they’re going to tough it out?

They’ll stay there. They’ll tough it out.

You’re a professor at MIT. You’ve been doing this job for 40 years. Does the work you’re doing for Occupy Boston feel like as serious work as what you do here at the university?

Actually, the serious work that I do during the day with my students is telling them that in the design process, people come first. And in my international studios, we go around the world trying to help people that don’t have the advantages of an architect. I believe that housing is not a luxury that a few should have. I believe that housing is a necessity that all people should have throughout the world.

Even protesters?

Of course, even protesters.

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  • http://twitter.com/capecodnic Nicola Burnell

    So good to see this diversity of people working together -  I LOVE the teepee idea! When I visited some of the ‘Eco-Warrior’ camps in England they either slept on pallets or in structures they’d built in the trees! This movement gives me hope. Thank you!!

    • Thomasbleser

      I don’t think we’re advanced enough to live in trees yet.  Chances of survival will be better if we stick to our traditional caves until they give us permission to acquire sharp objects and then maybe we can experiment with a revolutionary breakthrough I heard about, something called “fire.”  Only by sticking to caves will we be able to sleep with enough livestock to keep us warm, since we can’t generate enough electricity to exploit that source of heat.

      • roy

        That’s funny!

  • Anonymous

    Gee, Wampler, why haven’t you done something useful before?

  • Thomasbleser

    wow.  I can’t wait to see the results.  It takes ten people pedaling their generator for a week  to generate enough power to run a cell phone for three minutes

  • Alexis

    The problem, when it comes to winterizing, is definitely Menino and the police.  This past week they have routinely been raiding certain supply tents in the camp.  When asked why they are doing that, the reply is that that they are “looking for contraband.”  When asked to elaborate, they replied “insulated tents and materials.”  
    This, all while touting the slogan “we’re concerned for their health and safety.”  Right.

  • JP

    Native Americans lived through New England winters for hundreds (thousands?) of years without electric heaters or the like.  I would think that if these folks want to stay, they can figure out a way to make it through one winter – even without open fires.

  • former DUSP student

     You can promote adaptive capacity by using materials that are already on site, like recycled water bottles. Fill them up, let them freeze, construct an igloo, then let the snow add an extra layer of warmth. You can even cut the bottles in half to create a gutter if you like. Susan Murcott would know if you guys get enough sun to purify water on the roof.  Amy Smith would also have ideas about other kinds of appropriate development ideas.

    • JP

      What if we get freezing temps but no snow?

  • X-Ray

    Let ‘em freeze.  Maybe a dose of reality will jolt their senses.

  • Hexe

    Thank you for your work and staying humble. Let’s hope in the future we will have more people like you and fewer X-Rays. Perhaps then the reality will be less bleak, so there will be one less reason for the people to protest. I am always surprised how close-minded and cattle-like people can be; not only would they not think or act independently, they get angry and cannot accept if others do!

  • Sister Mary E. Friel,SND

    My hat goes off to Professor Jan Wampler.  I too come out of the Vietnam War
    years and Occupy Wall Street is a social movement with marked similarities to that era.
    Will visit the Boston site when up there in January 2012.
    Sister Mary E. Friel,SND

  • Dipick

    I believe most of these people already have housing that they were living in before this occupy protest began. Let them go back home!  They do no need you to provide them housing!

  • Anonymous

    So, has he extended this same courtesy to Boston’s homeless over the last many years?  Or does he only help those people who share his politics?


    occupy till there’s change if you have the will power.The lord is your strength!!!!!!!!!!!! UKWUIJE

  • Anonymous

    Anyone bashing Prof. Wampler is only displaying their ignorance. His work for the homeless hit by economic or natural disasters over many years places him beyond reproach. However, based on the restrictions stated by the City of Boston, I find it unlikely that they will allow the teepee. Global warming makes depending on snow for igloos tenuous. I think garments that  work as sleeping bags with flaps or ‘capes’ that can join with others to form a shelter would work best. These sleeping bag/jumpsuits already exist and could be easily modified. The shelter then goes with you when they break out the tear gas.

  • Dgnich

    The only thing that is going to help our economy is the consumer.The rich are laughing at the 99%. We all seem to forget we are the servents.I see a revolution coming in our country and these people (rich) will be sunning themselves in another country. Most rich are desendents from the rich and do not have a clue or care what they are doing to our country.When I was 14 I was told that the human being is selfish and selfcentered.I live to remember thee words.

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