These $5 Alien-Like Plastic Bag Tents Are Actually Heating Systems For The Homeless

Sometimes the best design ideas are the simplest. These shelters siphon off excess air from buildings’ HVAC systems–heat that otherwise is just being wasted.

Harsh winters are worst on the homeless. Staying outside could risk death due to hypothermia, but many also avoid the shelter system, fearing violence or disease. One kind of street dwelling, however, has managed to cleverly channel excess heat to people sticking it out on the streets.


For the past 17 years, artist Michael Rakowitz has been redirecting wasted heat from buildings’ HVAC systems to “paraSITE” shelters for the urban nomads he’s met on daily walks. Inspired by Bedouin tents built in response to different desert wind patterns, Rakowitz built his first structure as an MIT student for a man named Bill Stone in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Since then, Rakowitz made at least 60 in the various cities he’s lived, including one shaped like Jabba the Hutt at his client’s request.

This shelter was made out of Ziploc bags and designed to look like a rib cage at the owner’s request.

At first, Rakowitz built the paraSITES using black garbage bags, but learned that one of his clients’ main concerns was security–those living on the street needed to be able to see potential attackers. So instead, he switched to clear plastic, sometimes Ziploc bags. Rakowitz also customizes the structures for each person’s needs, like the paraSITE for a man named Artie, which featured an attached room for Artie’s partner, Myra.

“A project about architecture also became about portraiture,” Rakowitz said. “I attempted to give them some visibility and dignity.”

Part of the ingenuity also arose from taking advantage of gray areas in policy. One man, for example, asked Rakowitz to build him an 18-inch-high heated sleeping bag as to not trip over New York City’s restrictions on the height of street structures. When that paraSITE user was wrongly ticketed, the judge threw out the case. “There isn’t a law that tells you what you can do with recycled air,” Rakowitz said.

By principle, the paraSITE structures are cheap, too. None exceed $5, though Rakowitz has invested in a heat sealer to cut down the cost of tape.

Now that Rakowitz is teaching at Northwestern University in Chicago, he’s started getting to know some people on the streets there, and plans on rolling out more paraSITE shelters next winter. This past season, however, Rakowitz gave Anonymous group #OpSafeWinter his paraSITE do-it-yourself designs, which have been published in various homeless newspapers.


Check out his designs in the slideshow above.

About the author

Sydney Brownstone is a Seattle-based former staff writer at Co.Exist. She lives in a Brooklyn apartment with windows that don’t quite open, and covers environment, health, and data.