October 17, 2018

Big future, tiny living – Webster grad ponders a smaller version of life

Meghan Panu was inspired to construct a tiny home after living in a small dorm while studying abroad in Vienna and realizing that she didn’t need any more than a small kitchen and bed. When she got back, the now Webster alum was stuck with one question: What is home?

“In the dorm, I just felt comfortable in that space.” Panu said. “That’s when I started thinking about tiny homes…I like the idea of people realizing ‘wow, this is actually a livable space and I don’t need a mansion to give me that sense of home.’”

Meghan Panu has been in the process of building a sustainable tiny home since January of 2017. After over a year of putting work into the house, it is almost complete. Panu is aiming for the home to be finished by the end of September. For now, it is parked on Webster’s campus and Panu has been spending the summer putting last minute touches to it like wiring and furnishing. But what comes after that, Panu has yet to decide. 

“I don’t know my plan. My goal is to eventually travel in it,” Panu said, “but I want to establish roots here in St. Louis and try to get comfortable in it before I decide to take it 2,000 miles away. I want to get acclimated to tiny living before moving.”

Sustainability is no stranger to Panu. During the summer of her freshman year of college, she was a part of a community garden called the Hunt Ave. Xandue with some friends of hers. Throughout that summer, they grew their own plants and vegetables. The surrounding communities would participate as well, making a harmonious sustainable experience that inspired Panu to go down this path for the long haul.

One of the people Panu shared the garden with was Claire Hagarty. She was in a Sustainability 101 class with Panu, and wanted to participate in sustainable projects of her own through the garden. Hagarty said watching her classmate’s ideas come to life inspires her.

“She’s doing something that is huge. I’m super proud and excited for her and her aspirations for the tiny home,” Hagarty said. “I’m glad the garden could spark that interest in her.”

Along the way, Panu has also realized the importance of help and guidance from her friends. From the garden to now, she keeps in touch with people who were a part of the project from the very beginning. Taylor Michl, a senior at Webster and good friend of Panu’s, was there throughout the process for emotional support. Michl helped Meghan move the tiny home to Webster in May.

“I think it’s so cool and respectable that she dedicated herself to this project,” Michl said. “She didn’t know how to do it beforehand, she just figured it out as she went because she was really determined to do it.”

Meghan had a lot of help from the St. Louis community as well. She said that when she would go out looking for flooring or roofing materials, she would explain her project and people were excited and eager to help. As far as building, she did everything by hand, with the help of some friends of her family and a support system of her own.

“I think it has been a labor of love for me in a lot of ways because I am so emotionally invested in this project as well.” Panu said. “I feel like I owe the people who invested their time into it.”

The process of getting the home to where it is now was not easy for Panu, as she says she came across many obstacles she did not expect, like not being able to find used materials for the house. She sometimes had to use new materials wrapped in plastic, which go against her mission of environmental sustainability and affordability.

“I’ve learned that being a part of the tiny house movement you often still have to work in a capitalist system.” Panu said. “I’m trying to be as environmentally sound as I can and that’s really hard to do.  That is something that I have really had to accept – being sustainable is often a privilege that you don’t even realize.”

The idea of privilege became apparent to Panu when she realized tiny homes are not legitimate according to the law. There is no tiny mortgage for a tiny home. Instead, it is considered a recreational vehicle. If she is parked on someone’s property it is allowed, but it can not stand alone without paying thousands and thousands of dollars up front.

This made her consider housing for people in general and the privilege that comes with that. She began to think about using this project to not only promote sustainability, but to use as a platform to talk about housing in America.

“It feels a little less about sustainability to me now, which is interesting.” Panu said. “We don’t really think about it being a big problem but it’s a huge problem. Shelter is a basic human need. People are expected to move up in the chain and be successful and they don’t have a good quality of space.”

As Panu finalizes her project, she wants to get Webster students involved by having events where students can sign up and help paint the tin roof of the house, which Panu wants to be an array of different colors. She said it would be a good opportunity to thank Webster for letting her use their space for her house, and to also show the students what tiny living is all about.

“I want people to be involved if they want to be, or to feel like they’ve contributed in some way.” Panu said.

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