The vivacious Heather Stewart graduated with a degree in Art and has traveled the world creating installations and murals, including one for Burning Man. She learned how to weld in Kenya and made her way to Oakland, California where she started Boxouse. Inspired by portable, modular shipping containers, Boxouse came into being where Heather, along with her team, builds beautiful, sustainable, portable and affordable houses for everyone!
Where did you get your start, and what was your first job?
At 14, I started working on a ranch in Texas helping break and train young horses. I would walk out into the field, round up a handful of youngsters and ride bareback up to the barn to get them ready for the day. That ranch is still one of my favorite places on earth.
You have travelled all over the world creating art installations for work, including some for the Burning Man festival. How did you then decide to start something of your own?
Five years ago I moved to the bay area with my partner, Luke. We found ourselves paying almost $5,000 (approx £4,000) a month for a disheveled house in the mission and figured there had to be a better way. For a few years, we had been talking about the idea of converting shipping containers into tiny houses. Back in Texas, we had outfitted a shipping container as a metal shop and sent it to a site in Kenya where we were working on a different start-up. I learned to weld on a farm in rural western Kenya and fell in love with it immediately. Tired of working jobs, we weren’t thrilled with having to live in a house we didn’t particularly like, we decided to drop the lease and move on to a vacant lot in West Oakland. That was the beginning of Boxouse and our Containertopia community.
Can you tell us a little bit more about Boxouse? What have been some of the biggest challenges of building your business, and specifically, ones that go against industry norms?
There have been a lot of unique challenges in working with the City of Oakland. There is no infrastructure for what we’re doing in terms of building and zoning laws. Filing permits is expensive, time-consuming, and when you want to file a permit for something which doesn’t exist in the eyes of the city, it makes compliance virtually impossible. We got kicked off the first lot and bought a piece of land with a few friends. Soon after, the city came after us there as well. We moved the operation into a warehouse which has given us a bit more freedom to iterate on the product. We continue to work towards a solution for affordable, alternative, and sustainable housing.
Zuckerberg has the hoodie and the grey t-shirt. Ex-President Obama had his suits. Do you have anything like these? Any uniform you follow for work?
Most days I’m in the shop building houses or painting so I tend to stick to things which are comfortable and can get messy. My favorite is an oversized mechanics onesie given to me by a friend. It’s got holes burnt through from welding and is covered in paint as I’ve worn it to paint murals all around the world. For shoes, it’s tennies all the way; I’ve always got royal elastics on hand.
How do you transition between your workwear and evening wear? Do we see a different Heather when she goes out socialising post work?
Oakland is a pretty casual city. I have a pair of black wedges which are easy and dress up most things when it’s warm out. In the winter, it’s usually black jeans, big scarves, and always my vintage leather motorcycle jacket which was given to me by a friend.
For someone who is always on her feet, does a platform like obsessory ease your shopping process?
Trying to get a business off the ground means shopping is about as fictional as weekends are. I wear stuff into the ground and then pin it together and push it a bit farther. I’m that girl, still wearing the threadbare t-shirts she found in high school. Online shopping platforms are a total lifesaver where I can keep tabs on things I like and replace staples immediately.
You get to travel a lot for your work, any fashion finds that you’d like to tell us about? It could be an unknown designer or a fabulous outfit that you cherish dearly.
In Kenya I picked up a maasi shuka along the border of Tanzania; it comes everywhere with me. In India, I became obsessed with anything Ikat, and embroidered saree blouses.
What is your power piece, the item that you would feel your best in, or the lucky item that you wear when you have an important meeting?
I have a few pieces of jewelry either given to me or made for me by friends which I wear to calm nerves before meetings and presentations.
Would you define yourself as a fashion rebel? Someone who wears what they like despite the ‘fashion rules’! If so, then tell us one recent trend you found absolutely cringeworthy?
My life is about being agile, at any given moment I want to be able to paint a wall, build a table, or climb a tree if I feel like it. Anything which restricts spontaneity I tend to steer clear of.
Lastly, we would love to know what is the secret to your productivity?
The people around me are a big motivation. My friends are all always working on really interesting projects and willing to teach me new skills or lend a hand in some wild installation I’ve decided to take on. It’s a great push in the morning to stay focused and always work on improving efficiency and craftsmanship.
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