Building and buying

Gabriela and Reto have created a colorful family nest on the edge of town

Sira Huwiler-Flamm

In the midst of greenery and yet still in the city of Winterthur, Gabriela and Reto and their three children have realized the family dream for their own home – with colorful DIY ideas, a sustainable energy concept and lots of space to play, make music and try things out.

Gabriela and Reto stand smiling arm in arm in front of their home on the outskirts of Winterthur.
© Natascha Vavrina

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From the city to the countryside

Art therapist and teacher Gabriela (46) and masseur and teacher Reto (57) have been a couple for almost 20 years. They love things that are colorful and unusual: “Our first shared apartment was a chicken coop converted into a studio-style loft in the countryside,” says Reto. “At the same time, we had a city apartment in Zurich with a great planted roof terrace.” But even back then, the two of them dreamed of a little house in the countryside: “A home with a big garden, that’s what we’d always imagined,” says the 57-year-old.

But as young parents to Alea (now 15) and Silvan (now 13), they remained in the old village center of Oberwinterthur for years for practical reasons. “We lived in a beautiful 250-year-old timber-framed house,” Gabriela remembers. “We loved the historic walls. It was a dream house, but without any land around it!”

In 2009, when they become parents for the third time to little Luano (now 11), it became clear to both of them: “We needed more space and wanted to finally have a family nest in the countryside – for playing, romping around outdoors and discovering nature.” They browsed through the classified ads and came across an old building with a large garden, surrounded by woods and meadows, and yet still in the city of Winterthur. “It was perfect, so we went ahead immediately,” says Gabriela.

A big house can be seen with an outbuilding next to it. There are fields, meadows and trees surrounding the house.

The Rüegger family’s house is located right on the outskirts of town – virtually in the middle of nature.

The conversion: bright and family friendly

In November 2011, the approximately 100-year-old house was theirs. “And we even have a mortgage which costs us less every month and will offer us security for longer,” explains Reto. “Especially as a family with three children in education, stable financing over 15 years is worth a great deal.”

Before the family moved in, Gabriela and Reto spent three months renovating the house, doing a lot of the work themselves: they carefully preserved and repainted original old building elements such as wooden window frames, doors and a solid wood staircase. “But the rooms on the ground floor were narrow and gloomy,” Reto recalls, “so we tore out three walls and stabilized them with double-T beams, and also made an opening directly into the garden.” After all the noise of the demolition hammers, the sweat and the dust, an open, light-flooded 40-square-meter room appeared, a living room/kitchen which offers enough space for a dining table, a retro sofa from the former East-German era, a cozy family corner and the family’s large instrument collection. “Here Gabriela can play the grand piano, Alea can practice the violin, Silvan can get out the cello and our youngest, Luano, can smash chords on the electric guitar,” Reto laughs. “There’s always something going on here.”

A bright living room with a large sofa corner on the left. Gabriela’s grand piano can be seen on the right, and there are large windows in the background.

The living room is bright and offers enough space for a large sofa corner and Gabriela’s grand piano.

An open kitchen can be seen with a dining table in the middle. On the left is the kitchenette, and there is a sofa in the background on the right. A patio door is visible on the far right.

The kitchen and dining area were kept open – a retro sofa from the former East-German era stands in the corner.

An attic room with a sloping roof: there is a bed against the wall with a desk to the right; above it is a skylight.

Everything is now nice and bright on the top floor too. – Alea’s room is flooded with light thanks to new windows.

In the parents’ bedroom Gabriela and Reto are lying on the bed; in the foreground their three children are sitting in a hammock.

There is enough space for all five family members in the parents’ bedroom. The parents lie in bed while the children make themselves comfortable in a hammock.

Life on a construction site: a duplex room for everyone

In February 2012, the family moved into a house that was not yet finished: “We started out living on a construction site,” Reto remembers with a smile. “But if something is finished, that means it’s at a standstill, and that was never our goal. We wanted to design the house step by step according to our needs.” And that’s exactly what they did: the top floor and a non-insulated attic were transformed into four two-story bedrooms for the three children and parents. “Now everyone has their own little duplex room,” Reto says proudly.

The attic is insulated, and all the rooms have triple glazed windows. “Everything has been renovated with energy efficiency in mind, and all the rooms are lovely and light,” says Reto. “Up here, there used to be just one window to the east and one to the west. Now, at long last, everyone has their own cozy retreat with a view of the countryside.”

Planning for the future: sustainable heating and renovation

The idea of sustainability already played an important role during the renovation of the ground floor: “We rescued some old walnut parquet flooring from a derelict house, sanded it down ourselves and laid it in the large living room,” says Reto. “We love reviving such rarities!” The family invested in a sustainable energy solution during the conversion not only for the sake of the environment, but also in order to save money in the long term: “We tore out the old oil heating system in the basement and replaced it with twelve photovoltaic panels, two hot water collectors on the roof and a heat pump,” says Reto. “The system supplies us with hot utility water and electricity. We only pay for extra electricity for our hot water on cold winter days.”

As parents, they both find it very important to set an example to their children of how to treat the environment with care. “We should use the resources that nature gives us,” says Reto. “That’s why we also have a self-sufficient garden with over 35 different types of fruits and vegetables, as well as fragrant kitchen herbs.” The children also tend, water and harvest raspberries, beans, pears and lettuce. “They really enjoy seeing how self-seeded crops grow until they are ready to be picked,” says Reto happily. And bumble bees, bees, wild birds and hedgehogs also delight in the splendid variety of fruit and flowers.

The family’s three children run towards the house across the large meadow.

Room to romp around and play: the family’s three children love the garden and the big meadow around the new house.

A colorful family garden

“In the summer, our garden is our second family living room – for living in, romping around and entertaining,” says Reto. The children can play football, volleyball and badminton on the large lawn, climb the play tower into the two-story tree house, or whiz down the rope slide across the garden. The parents can relax in a heated hot tub after work. And they all enjoy barbecuing food over the open fireplace in the evenings.

The family has also implemented the odd upcycling DIY project outdoors: “We all worked together to build a patio out of more than 120 disposable pallets and 4,000 screws,” says Reto. It’s bright sea blue color makes it a real eye-catching feature in the garden.” And little by little, so much more is being created: “Alea once built a colorful wooden bar on her birthday, which now adorns our garden,” says Reto. In a small workshop, every member of the family, large or small, can work, fiddle about and realize their own DIY projects.

The boys play in the garden: Silvan gives his little brother Luano a push on the swing; a play tower can be seen in the background.

With a play tower, slide, swing and tree house – the garden is a real children’s paradise. Silvan gives his little brother Luano a push on the swing.

Living, creating and spending time together

“Thanks to the good terms of our mortgage, we can gradually continue to design our family nest and now finally convert the outbuilding into a two-story, heated studio,” says Reto. Art therapist Gabriela is to be given her own little creative realm. “I paint large pictures, build sculptures, dance and make music,” says Gabriela. “Being creative is very meditative for me. I’m looking forward to the 30 square meters of space being insulated, extended and flooded with light!” The rest of the family will also use the studio as a place to retreat and engage in artistic activities.

Masseur Reto can also combine work with life in his own four walls: “I’ve converted a big opaque tent, which can be heated in winter, into a massage practice,” he says. “On their first visit, some customers are surprised – but they like hearing the bird and wind sounds in the garden igloo and appreciate the impression of having a massage by the sea.”

According to the family, the best thing about living in their own home is that “a home of your own is never finished, but can be adapted – to suit the needs of your current living situation!” And who knows what the future holds. “Wherever possible, we will plan sustainably, for example by fitting more solar panels and installing geothermal energy,” says Reto. “And with three growing children it will undoubtedly remain colorful, lively and dynamic – that’s a good thing and we will continue to enjoy life here with energy and enthusiasm.” Animals that are easy to look after, such as dwarf goats, could one day perhaps bring even more life into the family’s colorful garden.

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