A Lawyer’s Sleek and Colorful
Brooklyn Townhouse

By Matilda Davies

In 2004, the City of New York purchased large swaths of property covered with factories and warehouses no longer in operation close to the industrial district of East New York in an effort to bring more affordable housing to the Bed-Stuy area. To open the door to homeownership for Brooklyn residents, the city razed the majority of the buildings, burying what was left, and on top built what is now rows of charming, three-story townhomes.

Nk Udogwu, an attorney in law firm management, bought her city-built Ocean Hill townhouse in 2015. She undertook a five-month complete gut renovation, reworking the kitchen from top to bottom, adding a master bathroom and a walk-in closet, and redesigning the backyard to make it entertainment-ready.

Nk added a fireplace, replaced old vanities in the bathrooms, knocked out walls to allow for a double-railing staircase, added a laundry room, sanded and restained the existing hardwood flooring, and even relocated the heating system. She’s flipped a cookie-cutter home into a beautiful space, taking into consideration quality, layout, functionality, and beauty.  

Nk’s home is a hub on warm Brooklyn evenings, the junction for friends mingling between dinner and drinks, conversations and cocktails around the high-top kitchen island, patio parties on summer nights. Speckled with injections color, forward expressions of Nk’s own stylistic sensibilities, and details of the life lived within, this is a home mirroring taste, lifestyle, and imagination.

The homeowner Nk Udogwu, an attorney in law firm management, completely renovated her townhouse in just five months

DIY Nk completed the backyard herself, from designing the patio to teaching herself how to lay hardscaping

Entry Chocolatey hardwoods against white walls creates a clean and open entry hallway

Color Nk created a colorful home by injecting bright yellows, oranges, and reds throughout

Living space The entryway flows easily into the main living space, where the pops of color continue

Biggie This portrait of Biggie Smalls is a custom portrait commissioned by the homeowner

Open stairs During the renovation, a wall was taken out of the living room to open the living room and create a dual-railed staircase

Sitting Bright whites flank this colorful portrait to highlight its presence

Selfie Opposite the paiting of Biggie is this portrait of Nk, commissioned from the same Cuban artist

Dining Neutral whites and creams continue in the dining room

Reflection Mirrored candle holders on the table reflect light back into the pristine dining room

Kitchen Nk used accents of red and orange in the kitchen to set off the clean white color palette

Island Nk's kitchen serves as a hub before warm nights out in Brooklyn

Surfaces A subway-tiled backsplash and marble countertops serve as the kitchen's backdrop

Transition The transition between inside and outside begins with a covered deck

Patio Nk did the work of installing the hardscaping, edging, landscaping, and fencing

Oasis The privacy fence creates an oasis in the midst of busy Ocean Hill streets

Funding and managing the renovation

Nk chose to use a 203(k) loan to finance the top-to-bottom townhome renovation. A 203(k) loan allows a homebuyer to purchase a home and renovate it without financing the renovation through out-of-pocket funds or a second loan. The payments are lumped into your standard mortgage payment to simplify the process and the money is held in escrow until it’s released to pay a contractor or worker.

For the bulk of the renovation, Nk hired day laborers but managed the process herself to keep costs down. The backyard, though, she completed herself. From design to laying the pavers, Nk (with a little help from YouTube and advice from friends) completed the project in three months for just $9,900. That’s nearly $30,000 less than the lowest quote she received from a contractor for the same project.

To find the right hands for the project, Nk leveraged fellow homeowners in the neighborhood. She’s a member of a group of black female homeowners in Brooklyn—mostly lawyers and doctors—who trade tax knowledge, insights on local plumbers, contractors, etc. Nk keeps a notebook of all the contractors and laborers she used during her reno so she can pass along their names to those who need expert hands.

Finding inspiration

Nk’s not an HGTV watcher, she’s never watched a house flipping or curb appeal or home makeover show, she’d never really explored Pinterest. But when it came down to making the decisions about style and color, the stress of the decision making process was too great, so Nk went looking for reinforcements—Pinterest and Houzz.

Nk knew she wanted a funky, colorful feel, but was wary of over-saturating the house or making it too loud, so she decided to go with gentle grays and whites to anchor the rooms and to use color as an accent. Red and orange for the kitchen and yellow for the living spaces.

The artwork

Perhaps most striking about this home is the artwork. The two largest portraits—we’ll call them Selfie and Biggie—are both custom pieces Nk commissioned from an artist she stumbled upon while on a trip to Cuba.

Nk was so struck by a painting of an Afro-centric woman that she contacted the artist and began corresponding with him long distance. She commissioned him to complete two paintings full of splashes of bright yellow. Selfie is the artist’s rendering of Nk, and Biggie is a commanding representation of Biggie Smalls. She’s in the process of commissioning more—a collage of Barack Obama, Malcolm X, and Nelson Mandela that will hang in her dining room, and a painting of of the Brooklyn Bridge that will adorn the hallway.

DIY or hire?

In terms of what she’d like to change about the house—the water heater (formerly with a tank, now tankless and with a drain after the renovation) sits on the third floor and generates a lot of heat that stays trapped on that level. And because the city built the homes on top of warehouses, there’s no basement. In fact, during the backyard reno, Nk would find old tools and other remnants, left over from the industrial life buried underneath.

If you ask Nk about her future projects, she’ll tell you she’s completely done with DIY. “That backyard took me out,” she says. “That was it. I can’t even put up a hook.” But that’s not keeping Nk from recommending others to take on their own renos.

“Don’t listen to what people say. You can do it. Just put your mind and time to it. I was super organized. I had a little book that I wrote in, drew everything in, I put all my contacts in, so whenever someone asks me for something, I know where to go. Every step-by-step plan I created myself and then translated it into Spanish for the day laborers. Just be super, super organized and do research. I taught myself between the beginning of April to the end of May how to do hardscaping.”

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