Hers was no ordinary house, with foundations anchoring it in the ground. It was a tiny house. And it vanished over the weekend.
For two years, the recent graduate of Webster University had been working on the minimalist accommodation. She had drawn a floor plan, installed sheep’s wool insulation, and found electric and water sources. The home rose 12 feet high, with green windows, a tin roof and stained cedar siding. Construction had cost about $20,000.
Panu was planning to move in this coming spring, taking part in the tiny house movement. The architectural and social experiment has gained traction as an alternative lifestyle, and also, in some areas, a quick fix for homelessness. This has prompted backlash from traditional homeowners who fear the trend will drive down prices, as well as scrutiny from experts who warn that tiny mobile homes — generally 100 to 400 square feet — are insufficient shelter for the vulnerable.
For Panu, building a miniature house was an experiment in sustainable living. “My eventual hope would be to participate in the creation of a tiny house eco village,” she wrote on Facebook in March.
“Being able to move into my tiny house and reduce my consumption as much as possible is very important to me,” she told the Webster Journal last year. She said she got the idea from a documentary on Netflix.
The project began in early 2017 with pencil sketches. In February, she acquired a trailer. Panu put out a call on Facebook for warehouse space, but much of the construction proceeded outdoors. The house was framed last winter. By March, the roof was in place. She prided herself on using recycled materials and completing the bulk of the construction work herself, enlisting volunteers where she could find them.
“Blood, sweat and tears,” she wrote in February, uploading a photograph of her bloodied hand. “But mostly blood.”
This week, Panu faced far worse than a wound on the job — a purloined home.
As it took shape, the home had traveled back and forth between St. Louis and Webster Groves, where Panu’s university is located. But on Saturday morning, she received a call from the supply warehouse’s owner, who had invited her to park near his business, Refab.
“He asked if I had moved the tiny house overnight and when I said no, he had the unfortunate news that they hadn’t, and it was likely taken,” Panu told WTHR, an NBC affiliate.
She turned to the public for help, putting out an appeal on social media. “I NEED YOUR HELP,” she wrote on her Instagram page, “St. Louis Tiny Living.” Between 10:30 p.m. Friday and 11 a.m. Saturday, she said, “the tiny house was stolen.”
“I’m at a loss,” she continued. “Please, if you see it around the city call and report it.”
Her followers expressed their surprise and sympathy. “I’m so sorry dude!” one wrote, vowing to “keep my eyes peeled.” Another commented: “I’m livid for you." One person simply proclaimed, “WHAT."
And then, there was the devoted follower who said she would scour the entire Midwest for the stolen house. She was driving from Iowa to Florida, she said, and had taken a screen shot of Panu’s home “to keep an eye out while we travel.”
In the days that followed, Panu mustered the full sleuthing powers of the Internet, crowdsourcing tips on social media and relaying them to her followers as she pressed local businesses for security footage. “Keep looking, it takes a village,” she told her army of amateur detectives, reporting that the house was seen Saturday morning “driving north down Grand near Russell.” By Sunday, two reports had come in placing the house on the I-70, heading West toward Kansas City.
Leads arrived on Panu’s Facebook page. A motorist on Route 54, about 100 miles west of St. Louis, said he had spotted what appeared to be her home being towed by a light gray Dodge 3500 diesel pickup truck. When Panu posted a screen shot of the message, someone commented to say he had seen the same truck, also with the house, parked near an Iron Skillet restaurant in Kingdom City, Mo.
On Monday, local media outlets joined the chase. “There are car thieves, package thieves and air conditioning thieves,” reported the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. “But St. Louis larceny reached a new milestone Saturday when burglars drove off with a whole house.”
News reports helped bring in more tips. Panu announced Monday that two men had been seen driving a truck with the home hitched on behind. “Could be traveling to Nebraska,” she speculated. By Tuesday, clues suggested they were headed in the direction of California.
But still no conclusive leads.
With little else to say about the heist, she posted photos of the home as it took shape over the summer — a reminder of what she once had. “If there was any confusion, we still have not recovered the tiny home,” she confirmed.
On Wednesday, detectives located the house 30 miles down the Mississippi River in House Springs, Mo., the sheriff of Jefferson County announced on Twitter. The Associated Press reported that an anonymous tip had led them to the purloined residence. According to the Post-Dispatch, there was no information about suspects.
It didn’t take authorities long to reach Panu, who was eager to have her home back. Law enforcement officials had more good news in store for her. A towing company said it would return the house free — “an early Christmas Present,” said the sheriff, Dave Marshak.
“TINY HOUSE FOUND,” Panu wrote on Facebook. She plans to finish the interior before moving in next year.
When Panu takes up residence in her tiny home, she will join a movement that seeks distance from the consumer economy. Its expansion in the United States also has been born of necessity. According to EcoWatch, tiny homes emerged as an “architectural and cultural phenomenon” following the collapse of the housing market between 2007 and 2009. Now, from San Jose to Philadelphia, communities of tiny houses are emerging as a possible answer to intractable homelessness.
The movement traces its roots to Henry David Thoreau, who wrote in “Walden," published in 1854, of his desire “to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived.” To do so, the writer and abolitionist had to build his own abode at Walden Pond, in Massachusetts
But the minimalist dwellings have gained a following as a trendy lifestyle choice. Some occupy them full-time, while others position the mobile structures adjacent to a fuller residence and rent out the miniature accommodations on Airbnb.
“5 impressive tiny houses you can order right now,” reads a headline in Curbed. The first offering is a “trendy all-black stunner,” which is 357 square feet but costs $139,000. HGTV’s television series “Tiny House Hunters” follows buyers “as they look to downsize, way down.”
These are the contradictions that define the movement, said Nancy C. Unger, a historian at Santa Clara University. “Trendy, trying to live more simply and ‘this is all I’ve got between me and homelessness’ — they’re all part of this," she told The Washington Post. A headline on the ArchDaily blog had this sinister interpretation: “Tiny Houses: Downsizing the American Dream."
As a serious solution to the absence of affordable housing, Unger said, the movement runs into trouble because it often lacks support from local homeowners, who fear that an influx of tiny dwellings will bring down the prices of traditional homes. There are risks for the occupants, too, chiefly that someone could “make off with the thing in which you have everything invested," she said.
Of course, no one is immune from disaster, the historian said. Nor is apparent disaster always the final word, as Panu learned in St. Louis.
But it’s a precarious way of living.
“I live in a house, and it could burn down, or any number of things could happen,” Unger said. “But nobody can steal it.”