A lot of the homes built in the first half of the 20th Century made it a point to design the attic to be used as a functional space. Spring-loaded ladders led up to large hatchway doors and an attic with a least a modest floor and perhaps even some shelves. A bare lightbulb dangling from the ceiling completed the ambiance sending the message that the attic was a place for storing things, not for living.

Then suddenly the idea of the attic as a functional storage area seemed to go away. Perhaps because it got a little too hot in the summer, or it was a place dreary with spiders and bats.

Thankfully today the idea of the modern-day attic as a functional storage area is enjoying a vigorous renaissance. Though most remain unfinished, which also means they can be a little bit of a blank canvass for creative storage solutions.

Lighting An Unfinished Attic

Before you even start to think about shelves, tote bins, and old steamer trunks for your child’s old clothes, you’re going to need to think about lighting. Not only will effective lighting help you find the things you need, but it will go a long way toward dispelling the gloomy feeling that a lot of attics give off.

Depending on when your home was built, there might already be electric outlets or some basic light fixtures you can tie into. If not you may need to bring in a licensed contractor to install some basic light fixtures. Another way around this is to buy portable battery-powered LED lights. They can be attached by Velcro or another adhesive. They don’t give off any real heat, and they’re so energy efficient than a single battery-powered LED light can potentially last years in a rarely used attic.

Should I Insulate The Walls In My Unfinished Attic?

With a lot of attics, the floor which is above your ceiling has most of the insulation. The walls, which are usually the back of your roof boards might have little to no insulation. While the attic will stay reasonably warm in the wintertime from the heat of the house, it can get incredibly hot in the summer.

If you’re going to be keeping sensitive materials up in the attic, you might want to think about having a contractor apply closed-cell spray foam insulation on the walls. Otherwise, even things like old books and cherished childhood handicrafts can suffer from the extreme summertime heat and humidity that affects a lot of unfinished attics.

interior view of a modern bedroom with red bedding in the mansard the whose ceiling is made of wood

Attic Access

Take the time to assess your attic access. In some newer homes, the attic access might be little more than a small door tucked into the ceiling of an upstairs closet. If it looks like you can barely shimmy your shoulders through the hatch, then you really should think about bringing in a licensed contractor to expand the access hatch and perhaps put in a spring-loaded ladder with basic safety rails.

Choosing The Right Storage Systems For Your Unfinished Attic

With an unfinished attic, you might have a lot of horizontal space and little vertical space to work with. It’s also worth noting that the stringer boards that make up the attics floor weren’t necessarily designed to bear a lot of weight. So, it’s not the sort of place where you want to store your old college weight set. When choosing what you want to store up there, try to think lightweight and low the floor.

Long Shallow Tote Bins

Long shallow tote bins and an unfinished attic storage area go together like peanut butter and jelly. It’s a great way to store away seasonal clothing items and loose holiday decorations. Just make sure to clearly label the totes in a way you can see them. There are vacuum bag systems that let you shrink down the volume of clothing items before storing them away, which can also help maximize the available storage space inside a long, shallow tote bin.

If you are not 100% comfortable with walking across your attic’s floor, you might want to improvise a hook and loop system. You can find simple rings that can be epoxied onto the lightweight tote bin. Then a broom handle with a simple hook on it can let you reach it at a distance. This sort of system lets you pop your head up the attic steps and pull what you want to you, without having to actually walk into the attic yourself.

Adjustable Shelving Systems

If you are blessed to have a home with a strong attic floor and robust stringer beams then walking around in your attic might be safe and easy. Still, the greatest load-bearing capacity is going to be near the walls. If you have vertical studs in the trusses of your attic, you might want to think about installing some adjustable shelves.

Track systems let you add and subtract shelves as needed. They also let you maximize the vertical space. Since they studs in a truss are usually made from 2 X 4 lumber the shelves can usually handle a fair amount of weight. You might be able to get up to 70-pounds per shelf.

Cupboard Storage

Depending on the shape of your roof and the trusses in your attic, you might be able to install low cupboards into the side walls. This lets you seal lightweight items away for long term storage, while still being able to keep seasonal items and tote bins close at hand.

Hanging Poles

Hanging clothing in protective plastic bags is also something that works well in an unfinished attic. The poles are can be mounted in place with inexpensive pole sockets. This gives you additional closet space to store away seasonal clothing or perhaps long-term storage for your wedding dress. Just make sure to store them in a sealable garment bag or at least a plastic covering just like you get from the dry cleaner.

Here again, a pole and hook system can let you pull down the garments you want without having to actually set foot in the attic. This works very much like clothing stores with tall ceilings to hold suit coats and overstocked jackets.