Getting the most leverage from a redo of a room.
The hardest part about organizing an attic is, everyone agrees, getting started. Where and how to even begin? In my case, the place had become such a mess that I wanted to turn around, walk back downstairs and shut the door on the clutter.
That, in fact, is exactly what I did for about four years. But last fall, when I couldn't find my father's will (he died in 2002) or the original architectural plans to the house in New Jersey I had inherited, I realized I'd hit rock bottom. My New Year's resolution for 2008 was to reclaim the attic.
When I decided to write about my project, I ran into another realization: I didn't know the first thing about organizing and had no business offering any advice to anyone. I needed to call in a pro.
I turned to Caitlin Shear, founder of A Sorted Affair, an organizing firm based in Annandale and Richmond, for help. I warned her that the attic had become something of a hazardous waste dump, but when she saw it, she said she had seen worse. At least, she pointed out, there were no nests, carcasses or droppings. This was supposed to make me feel better?
On her first visit, she scanned the clutter and began firing questions at me: How many of those books belong to my husband, Bob? How attached am I to my mother's formal china? My grandmother's china? Why do I store stock pots that I actually use in the attic — two floors above the kitchen? Why are those old baby clothes stuffed into paper grocery bags?
Then — and this surprised me — she asked to snoop around the rest of the house, looking in closets, opening drawers, inspecting the garage. This, it turns out, is how she assesses other potential storage areas. She says it's important to look at the house "through the eyes of a stranger, so you can find where things are kind of naturally piling up." ( I still suspect it was an excuse to have a look-see.)
Back up to the attic we went, and by then I was nervous. I knew I needed to clean it out. But was this stranger going to tell me I had to throw everything away?
She did not. Organizing, Caitlin said, is not a euphemism for tossing. She never pushes people to get rid of all their stuff. "Sometimes it's just not the right time to let it go," she said. "You have to be sensitive to that."
When we waded in, there was no order to my attic: Luggage was next to wrapping paper was next to linens was next to record albums was next to stock pots was next to more luggage and baby clothes and more linens.
So the first step, Caitlin said, would be zoning: grouping similar things together so you know exactly what you have. Once everything had been grouped, we would tackle a different zone each week, cleaning out, donating and storing what's left.
Caitlin said zoning is really the most important part of organizing. "You cannot make a decision until you see it all together," she said.
So we started moving boxes and bags all around the attic to create piles of similar stuff. As we zoned, we filled six large plastic bags with trash. I was amazed by the volume of empty shopping bags, clothing boxes, newspaper and packaging material that had just been lying around.
Then we pushed the piles back to the perimeter of the room to create more floor space in the center. Finally, Caitlin stuck sticky notes on the walls to label each separate zone: one for books, another for photographs and paper and furniture, etc.
After hours of work, we were sweaty and thirsty, but for the first time in years I could see the floor space in my attic. There was even room to set up an old kitchen table and two chairs as a place to talk and take notes as work progressed.
There's a lot of work ahead (we haven't organized anything yet), but already there is more space, much more space. And for the first time, I think I might actually get the job done.
E-mail me about your organizing projects at email@example.com
PHOTOS: Organizing - James M. Thresher, The Washington Post; COPY BY: Liz Seymour - The Washington Post;
WEB EDITOR: Janet Bennett Kelly - washingtonpost.com