Peter Daniel Frazier’s minimalist office escape

Most of us consider an uncluttered workspace to consist of an office with well-executed organization and minimal distraction. Peter Daniel Frazier, architect of the “Cube,” has taken the entire uncluttered workspace concept in a new, upward direction with his innovative home office:

The minimalist office is fully integrated into the surrounding forest. Frazier’s “Cube” serves not only as an office, it does triple duty as a meditation room and guest house.

The picture that appears here, and Frazier’s entire set are open for viewing on Flickr. Each image also has wonderful descriptions detailing his construction.

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Don’t forget! If you’re in the Chicago area, join Erin and some of the Unclutterer staff (including me) at The Book Cellar on Monday, December 28, any time between 4:00 and 7:00 p.m.

Also, set your DVRs to record Erin on WGN Tuesday, December 29, during the Midday News programming. She’ll be talking about her book and handling sentimental clutter.

Life-threatening clutter

We often talk about the dangers of clutter, but tragedy has a way of bringing it home. An 80 year-old man in Evanston, Illinois, was found under several feet of clutter in an attempt to escape his burning home. From the article:

When firefighters arrived, they found flames coming from the west side of the home, said [Evanston Fire Department Division Chief Tom] Janetske. When they tried to enter the front door, they were unable, so went around to a side door, Janetske said.

When they were able to begin their search of the home, firefighters, including some who were able to force their way in the front door, found the man under about 3 feet of debris in the home’s living room, about 10 feet from the front door, Janetske said.

If you know of someone who is a hoarder and whose life might be in danger, please help them to find medical assistance. The Hoarders television website has an excellent resource page that lists many programs and organizations.

Palm Pre: A review by an ex-dumbphone user

Today we welcome back Unclutterer programmer Gary DuVall to the front side of the site.

Smartphones are all the rage these days. From Palm’s earlier creations, through the Blackberry and the iPhone, I’ve managed to resist the urge to upgrade from my old Motorola RAZR. As my thinking went (and had for nearly a decade), all I needed was a phone that worked — not one that included the kitchen sink. All of that went away this past weekend when I finally upgraded to Palm’s newest creation: the Palm Pre.

The Palm Pre sports a veritable plethora of features found on many competing smartphones: a camera, integrated mail and contact management, an easily-accessible online store (called the App Catalog), media playback, and more. What set the Pre apart from the others in my mind were some distinctive features that promised to make life just that much easier: Synergy, multitasking, iTunes sync, turn-by-turn GPS, and a very sharp 3-megapixel camera with integrated LED flash.

Synergy, Palm’s contact management system, integrates and merges your contact lists from Gmail, Facebook, Instant Messaging, and Microsoft Exchange into one easy-to-manage profile for each contact. Merging my Facebook contacts with my AIM list was easy; out of approximately 175 contacts, only three wouldn’t automatically merge. Linking the remaining three unmerged AIM contacts with the profiles they belonged under took maybe two extra minutes.

One of the more quirky and unexpected features of the Pre is its ability to masquerade as an iPod and synchronize with your existing media library using iTunes. While it won’t allow you to listen to files containing Apple’s DRM, it will synchronize your non-DRM MP3 and MP4 video collection to its 8GB storage without a problem. One caveat: Apple may not look upon this feature so favorably in the future, so you may not want to exclusively depend on it.

With the Pre’s on-board 3-megapixel camera, I no longer find it necessary to bring my everyday point-and-shoot along with me. The pictures are more than acceptable in both well-lit and low-lit situations. The LED flash works well enough, providing just enough light to get the right shot in dim light. That said, if you’re a dedicated amateur photographer, you may want to stick with your higher-end camera because the configuration options are currently slim.

The on-board turn-by-turn GPS system, called “Sprint Navigation” by Telenav, could easily replace most in-car GPS systems — provided you’re in a coverage area. Looking for the nearest bank? Three button presses and your directions are already queued up. While Google Maps on the Pre also offers much the same functionality, the spoken directions of Telenav’s system make it a much safer proposition. Sprint Navigation is provided free on the Pre.

And now we come to multi-tasking, perhaps Palm’s biggest achievement with the Pre. WebOS, Palm’s new operating system, allows multiple applications to be opened and used at once in the form of “cards.” While the iPhone has unofficially supported minor multitasking in certain applications, Palm takes it to a whole new level, allowing a user to view a PDF (through either the included PDF Reader or the newly-available Shortcovers e-reader application), listen to Pandora, map out a route using Google Maps, write an email, and browse the web all at once without having to close out from any of them to access the other.

While the App catalog may be sparse until more developers get on-board, there’s already evidence the organization-minded will have even more to enjoy on the platform: Evernote and SplashID Secure Password Manager were both released last week, offering even more tools to keep everything in its place.

With the Pre, I’ve come to realize just how much the smartphone has to offer: an innovative OS just ripe for organizing multitaskers, and (most of all) I no longer have to keep a notepad, GPS, point-and-shoot camera, or iPod with me. While I’m not going to step into the inevitable “Is it better than the iPhone?” fray, I can at least tell you that Palm has most certainly made me a believer in keeping life organized using the Pre.

(The Palm Pre is currently available for $199 (after $100 mail-in rebate) with a 2 year contract through Sprint, but other Palm phones using the WebOS platform are expected to find their way to other carriers including AT&T as well as Verizon in the next 6-12 months.)

Disaster uncluttering: Looking back

Today we welcome back Unclutterer programmer, Gary DuVall. In the In the first, second, and third posts in this series, he discussed how to prepare yourself and your home in case of a disaster and what to do if it unfortunately happens. This is his final post in the series. He is writing for us based on his personal experience of losing everything he owned in a fire.

By January, life started to feel normal again. The fire, the struggles with the insurance company, and finding a new place to live were all behind us. We were rebuilding and moving on.

We realized we hadn’t given much thought to the loss of our things but had spent all of our time worrying about our general predicament (Where will we live? I can’t believe this happened. How do I go to work tomorrow?) We discovered just how little the material stuff meant to us. This realization presented us with the peculiar ability to remain positive (for the most part) during the process. We talked about this being an opportunity rather than a devastating blow. (Losing intimate, irreplaceable items from our families, friends, and shared experiences did, for a time, bother us; however, that also faded.)

Thumbing through the more than 30-page inventory that listed what we once owned made us realize just how much we had, and, perhaps more importantly, how much we didn’t want to replace. So far, we have only replaced 20 percent of what we previously owned. To be comfortable, we don’t need a lot of stuff. Everything we have repurchased, we have been very thoughtful about quality and where everything will live in our home. No clutter.

Did we make mistakes along the way? Sure we did. We didn’t have an inventory prepared ahead of time, despite telling ourselves we’d “get to it one day.” Receipts we had kept prior to the fire weren’t filed in our records box, resulting in their loss. We hadn’t read through and understood completely our insurance policy, which, had we lost it in the fire, could have left us at a vast disadvantage. Knowing what we do now, these aren’t mistakes we’ll repeat in the future.

When we look back at what happened on June 27, 2008, we look at it for what it is: an experience nobody should ever go through. But, at the same time, it was an experience that afforded us a rare “reboot” button. We were able to re-examine and take stock of what we had, and act decisively toward a new beginning.

As strange as it might be, considering the setbacks, inconveniences, angry phone calls and other problems I’ve written about during the course of this series, I like to think we ended up better for it in the end.

Disaster Uncluttering: Rebuilding

Today we welcome back Unclutterer programmer, Gary DuVall. In the first and second posts in this series, he discussed how to prepare yourself and your home in case of a disaster and what to do if it unfortunately happens. He is writing for us based on his personal experience of losing everything he owned in a fire on June 27, 2008.

After having spent the prior three weeks trying to process what had happened, it was nice for life to slow down a bit. My wife and I found a temporary sublet north of the city to live in for a couple of months, and we tried to regain some sense of a “normal” life. While it wasn’t the most comfortable situation -— nothing in our furnished sublet belonged to us and we were 15 miles from our neighborhood -— it was still a place we could call home.

The next step in the process was to build an inventory of what we lost. Between the photographs my wife Stephanie had taken and many hours of trying to remember what we owned, we constructed an inventory we felt good about and sent it off to the insurance adjuster.

Now would be a good time to point out a vital distinction in your policy when it comes to how much money you’ll receive for the items you’ve lost: Actual Cash Value (ACV) vs. Replacement Cost (RCV). Under ACV, your items are subject to depreciation and as such you’ll only receive enough money to replace the item at that depreciated price. Under RCV, you receive the full amount necessary to purchase an item of like quality without a depreciation in value. While your first check under a policy that contains a RCV rider is likely to cover actual cash value only, it’ll be up to you to repurchase the items you’ve lost and send in the receipts to recoup the difference. (Learn more.) Needless to say, we were both thankful we purchased a RCV rider.

The hardest part after submitting the initial inventory was waiting for that first check. Come September, when we finally moved into a new apartment, we still hadn’t seen anything but excuses from both the insurance and claims adjusters. In the meantime, my wife and I ended up having to sacrifice the savings and credit we’d built up in order to buy the essentials. In our case, it ended up taking over three months -— October 2008 -— to obtain the completed appraisal document and our ACV check.

Considerations:

  1. Compile your inventory before a disaster occurs and keep it updated quarterly. Had we done this before the fire, it wouldn’t have been necessary to spend 40+ hours compiling an inventory. While a video inventory provides you with visual evidence of the items you own, a spreadsheet containing the purchase price, date of purchase, and the store where purchased (along with receipts when possible) will serve as hard evidence. Ask your insurance provider for a copy of their inventory spreadsheet; in most cases, they’ll be more than happy to oblige.
  2. Consider a Replacement Cost Value (RCV) rider. While it may come at a premium, it’s worth it. The difference in what you receive may be thousands of dollars. Some providers (such as USAA) now default to this type of coverage in order to ensure policyholders aren’t left at a disadvantage with very little money to rebuild.
  3. A tip from the many insurance adjusters I spoke to while roaming the building after the fire: When calculating the replacement cost of an item for your inventory, use the MSRP. Relying on a sales price is likely to result in you receiving a check far below the value of what’s necessary to rebuild.
  4. Think about your options. In our case, we found “starting from zero” to be a liberating experience of sorts; we could chart exactly how we wanted to rebuild without, ironically, the process of having to sell or get rid of existing furniture and items. Once the initial shock of having lost everything fades, you’re left with what we considered to be a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.
  5. If you’re financially able, don’t wait for that first check to arrive before making purchases. You may be left waiting months and, in the end, could end up moving into a completely empty home. It’ll be up to you and your family to take action and prepare your new home with furnishing and essentials whether you have a check in hand or not. If you’ve purchased a RCV rider, organize your receipts, match them to your inventory, and have them ready to submit as quickly as possible after the first check arrives.
  6. Take charge, and don’t be afraid to press for action when every side seems to have an excuse and you’re caught in the middle. Many people end up waiting considerably longer than three months for results because they don’t want to rock the boat.
  7. Your initial inventory isn’t the end-all-be-all when it comes to making your claims. Should you discover additional items that were lost, you can make subsequent claims. In our case, we ended up making three separate claims: The initial inventory and two more addendum inventories.

In the final part of the series, I’ll discuss how the experience has affected us in the long-term.

Disaster Uncluttering: Aftermath

Today we welcome back Unclutterer programmer, Gary DuVall. In the first post in this series, he discussed how to prepare yourself and your home in case of a disaster. He is writing for us based on his personal experience of losing everything he owned in a fire last June.

After the fire was declared extinguished, we were allowed back into the building to survey the damage. We walked up three flights of stairs through noxious air, flooded floors, and dripping ceilings to get to our unit. The fire started in the unit immediately above ours -— which was now just a giant hole -— and the enormous amount of water, soot, chemicals, and smoke that had made their way down had left nearly everything in our place unsalvageable. Luckily enough, our important documents, which I had been in the process of organizing days before and included our insurance policies, were still mostly untouched in their airtight container. Though we tried, there wasn’t much we could do to mitigate any further damage to our things as water was still raining everywhere through the exposed timber ceiling. We grabbed our records, as many valuables as we could find, our waterproof Mag-Lite flashlight, and a digital camera that had been partially soaked but stored away from the brunt of the damage. And then we left for the night.

The first order of business was to begin our claim with the insurance company, at which time we were told to find a hotel and wait to hear back the next day from a “floating” claims adjuster. After we found a hotel and settled in with our cats, the first things we did were:

  1. Air out the camera in hopes of using it to document the damage
  2. Purchase emergency clothing and supplies, all of which would be covered under our policy
  3. Re-read through our policy, organize our priorities, and consult with family members with prior experience in the industry.

Despite the day’s events, it was surprisingly easy to sleep that night.

We received the call we were expecting the next day from the “floating” insurance adjuster and were told to stay at the hotel until Monday. Staying at the hotel until Monday turned out to only made things worse, as we were asked on Monday why we didn’t do more to mitigate the damage. This particular conversation was awkward for both sides and for entirely different reasons.

It wasn’t until Tuesday, after heated discussions with our claims adjuster, that they finally assigned us an on-site adjuster to survey the damage so we could start the process of remediation. As my wife finished snapping a few hundred photos of the damage, the on-site adjuster almost immediately deemed it a “total loss” and left it to the remediation/mitigation crew we hired to clear out the unit and help us file our property claim. It would be another week of prodding, phone calls, and unanticipated project management to make sure all sides were in sync before everything was finally removed from our unit and what little could be salvaged was taken by the remediation crew.

It was strange on that last day to look down from my office window and find almost everything we owned filling the dumpster below, but it meant we could finally concentrate on the most important part of the process: rebuilding.

These are some important tips to keep in mind after an emergency:

  1. Your first priority is to make the claim. During this call, if you don’t have a copy of your policy, demand that one be sent overnight to the address where you’re staying. Ask about the company’s obligation to have an adjuster sent out as soon as possible, your “Loss of Use” provisions, and your responsibilities as dictated by the policy.
  2. Beginning with your first call, write down and keep records of every single contact you have with anyone related to the insurance company, the on-site adjuster, the mitigation process — and in the case of renters, the landlord. Include times, dates, names, numbers, and a detailed account of what transpired, even down to the mood of all sides involved. Save all e-mail contacts in a special inbox folder if you have access to a computer. If you have problems down the road on any front, you’ll have a lot of information to reference.
  3. If you have access to your residence afterward, pull your records and valuables first, including your hard drives if possible. While some insurance companies advise heavily against moving anything and add that you may not be able to claim these items after removal, it’s better to be safe than sorry. (In some cases, you still can so long as you inform the insurance company of what’s been removed.) If you find items that could directly help you sort through what’s left, such as a heavy flashlight and/or a camera that survived, their immediate usefulness in recording evidence of the damage (and building an inventory in the absence of one) will vastly outweigh your need to claim them.
  4. Read your policy again thoroughly. Compare what’s in the policy against your logbook and don’t be afraid to ask questions. Have a copy with you at all times (along with the logbook) when going back to the premises.
  5. Take stock financially. Your insurance may cover you immediately, but you may not see that money for days or even weeks. During that time, save every single receipt, no matter how small. You’ll be required to turn them in as part of your policy’s “Loss of Use” claim. We used zip-top sandwich bags to sort receipts by type and keep them safe at the same time.
  6. Be prepared to assert yourself. Being non-confrontational after losing nearly everything won’t do any good if a company that’s supposed to be on your side tells you X and your policy or contract states Y. Although the squeaky wheel generally gets the grease, remember to be polite but firm when you state your case.
  7. Breathe. You’ll come across irreplaceable mementos and be in contact with various people bordering on infuriating at times -— all the while bearing the heavy burden of uncertainty — but it’s essential to keep your thoughts as uncluttered as possible and concentrate on what needs to be done. Maintain your composure when working directly with the situation at hand, and find ways of coping during the downtime. We went to a local town festival for a day during some well-needed downtime, and it helped us greatly.

In Part III of this series, I’ll discuss the process of rebuilding your home from nothing.

Disaster uncluttering

Today, I want to introduce you to Unclutterer programmer Gary DuVall. This post is the first in a series that he has agreed to write for us based on his personal experience of losing everything he owned.

June 27, 2008, was like any other day. It was early afternoon, the sun was out, I was working from home, and I was on a conference call with a client. Then, out of the corner of my eye, I noticed a plume of smoke coming from what seemed to be our building’s roof.

As the plume grew larger, I began to realize the smoke wasn’t an afternoon pre-Cubs-game barbeque on the rooftop by a couple of guys playing hooky from work — this was a real fire. I ran up the stairs toward the rooftop deck to check things out. By the time I got to the door leading outside, the fire had grown large enough that I could hear it blazing, and I knew there were a half-dozen propane grills on the other side of the metal.

It was most certainly time to go.

Luckily, before the fire had spread downward through the floors, I was able to herd our two cats into the carrier, pack up my work laptop in the bag I always had close by, and make it down the smoke-filled stairway and out the building with a couple of minutes to spare. Unfortunately, in the end, we lost almost everything — but we had our pets, our safety, and an emergency line of communication.

Months before, when my wife and I first moved into the building, I insisted that vital items like our cat carrier be stored in easily accessible places in our apartment (rather than the basement storage area) in the — we thought — unlikely case of just such a situation. Only a couple of minutes of planning for what could happen made that split-second decision-making much easier when it did.

This is the crux of what I like to call “disaster uncluttering”: Being prepared for the unlikely, in case it happens. It takes but a little time and thoughtful review to prevent mind clutter from getting in the way of your safety when you have very little time to spare.

Here’s a checklist of questions to ask yourself and suggestions of what can be done to prevent both mind and physical clutter should a disaster strike you out-of-the-blue:

  1. Consider where you store things. You should have almost immediate access to the following items: Pet carrier(s), an emergency line of communication (preferably a laptop, netbook, or advanced PDA), a cell phone, your car keys, a rugged flashlight, and, if at all possible, a copy of your renters or homeowners insurance policy.
  2. Have an escape route ready, and cover your bases. Being on the third level and without a fire escape, our elevator was out and one stairwell had already become dangerously consumed by smoke. Become familiar with every pathway that leads out of your home ahead of time.
  3. If you have pets, consider putting Pet Safety Alert decals on external windows and your front door to alert neighbors and authorities you have animals (in case you aren’t at home when an emergency happens).
  4. Spend the time, and take inventory of your belongings. Even if you don’t use an automated system, a video of everything in your home can help spur your memory. Be sure to backup the video so you can still access it if your home is destroyed.
  5. Are your vital documents protected and organized? Ideally, you’ll want to store them in a fireproof safe and keep a backup copy online. Check out our series on fireproof safes for more information on this subject.
  6. Consider where you’ll temporarily live if you’re unable to inhabit your home. Will you need to stay in a hotel, or will you have access to the home of a friend or relative?

In an upcoming post, I’ll discuss what happened after the fire. In many ways, the aftermath was far worse than the fire itself.

The image above is what was left of our oak bedroom floor. In addition to soot, it took only a few hours for mold to begin to grow in the water that helped put out the fire.