Julie Birdwell, Co-founder & President
Julie grew up on a farm in central Illinois and began her career in carpentry in 1985 after completing a Master’s in Art Education at the University of Illinois.
Though she changed courses professionally, Julie continues to pursue the visual arts, exhibiting locally and nationally in juried and invitational shows and winning awards for her work. She collaborated in the design for the CD cover of Joni Laurence’s premiere CD, “Short Time,” and Laurence’s second release, “Daphne Speaks,” in addition to contributing backup vocals for both CDs. Her mixed media sculpture “Spine” is featured on the back cover of “Daphne Speaks.” She has also played bass guitar and sung backup vocals for the band M.J. Walker and Fictive Kin.
In addition to the visual and performing arts, Julie enjoys cooking and camping.
Jill Mulder, Co-founder, Vice President, Secretary, & Treasurer
Jill is a native of Urbana and a University High School graduate. She began working as a carpenter in 1982, after attending Southern Illinois University as a microbiology major.
Her duties with New Prairie include job site management and day-to-day operations, billing and account management, and occasional field work. For reasons lost to history, the crew refers to her affectionately as “Chickenboss.”
Jill is an avid gardener, a canoeing enthusiast, and a loyal Illini and Cubs fan.
Chris Walker, Carpenter, Building Analyst, & Building Envelope Specialist
A Collinsville, Illinois native, Chris graduated from Southern Illinois University in 1987 with a Bachelor of Fine Arts degree. He began his career in carpentry by remodeling night clubs in the Washington, D.C. area, then became a designer and carpenter for a theatre company in Pittsburgh. He also taught set design and building at a small college in West Virginia.
In 2000 Chris came to work for New Prairie. In 2011, he was certified as both a Building Analyst and a Building Envelope Specialist through the Building Performance Institute (BPI). He has a deep interest in renewable energy sources and making homes more efficient. Chris designs and builds custom furniture, often using unusual or salvaged materials. In 2006 he designed and built the “S. S. Ackerman,” a 2-story-tall tugboat exhibit, for the Orpheum Children’s Science Museum.
He also enjoys hanging out with friends and family, eating good food, and watching the Cardinals beat the Cubs.
Erik Paulson, Carpenter
Erik holds an Associate’s degree from Parkland College in Construction Design and Management. He began working as a carpenter in 1992, building new homes and remodeling an 1870 Victorian. He also has training and experience in CAD drafting.
Erik began working for New Prairie in 2003. While working at New Prairie, he has broadened his carpentry skills to include straw bale building and timber framing.
Erik owns a small farm, and enjoys cooking, furniture making, and sculpture. He also follows auto sports, with an interest in open wheel racing.
Jennifer Hansen, Bid Estimator & Carpenter
Jennifer is a native of Urbana. In 1999 she graduated with a Bachelor of Fine and Applied Arts in Painting from the University of Illinois, receiving the “Outstanding Painting Student” award in her senior year. Jen came to work for New Prairie in 2005. Seeking a healthier, more sustainable, and more aesthetically beautiful material to work with in the context of her job, Jen has also learned to mix and apply natural paints.
Jen continues to stay active in the visual arts, painting and sculpting in her spare time, and she enjoys spending time with her family.
Nicholas Gordon, Carpenter & Solar Installation Specialist
Nicholas grew up in Champaign and graduated from Champaign Central High School. As a kid, his interest in building was stoked when he helped his dad build a huge tree-house in their backyard. He attended Southern Illinois University, majoring in chemistry with a pre-med focus. He returned to Champaign and in 2006 came to work for New Prairie.
After leading the solar panel installation job on the Net Zero Energy House in Champaign, Nick began study and training to complete his North American Board of Energy Practitioners certification. He was awarded his certification in 2015, highlighting his expertise in designing and installing solar photovoltaic panels and his commitment to high standards of ethical and professional practice.
Antonio Juarez, Carpenter
A native of Santa Eulalia Huehuetenango, Guatemala, Antonio grew up farming with his family. In 1988 he came to Champaign seeking a better life. He soon obtained work in the trades and has continued to work as a carpenter, doing both framing and finish work. In 2006 Antonio brought his experience and sense of humor to New Prairie.
As the father of four sons, Antonio finds his spare time to be at a premium. He enjoys playing basketball and has recently taken up jogging and bicycling so he can keep up with his youngest son.
Mark Ritten, Carpenter
Mark has lived in the Champaign-Urbana area most of his life. Mark got his start in the construction field at the ripe old age of 12, when he started helping neighbors with their building projects, be it adding a garage or roofing their house.
He spent two years in the construction program at Parkland College before transferring to Bradley University, where he received a Bachelor’s of Science in Construction. Mark started working for New Prairie in 2007. He likes learning about new products and techniques in the construction industry.
Kalin Gordon, Carpenter
Kalin joined the New Prairie staff in 2007, and has since become know as the “Shop Queen.” Although Kalin works primarily in the shop, painting and staining whatever needs to be painted or stained, she is also Girl Friday, running errands and filling in wherever she is needed. She also provides back-up to our Building Analyst during Energy Audits.
In 2014, Kalin and her husband Nick founded Wonderlust Labs, an artists cooperative selling eclectic handmade t-shirts, paintings, mobiles, and felt animals. They sell their art at festivals and farmer’s markets, as well as online.
Kalin loves listening to history podcasts, reading, baking cookies, and watching Dr. Who.
Barrie Bredemeier, Carpenter
A native of New England, Barrie earned a Bachelor of Fine Arts from New York State College of Ceramics in 1981. In 1983 he came to C-U for his Master of Fine Arts in glass sculpture. He designed, built, and ran the glass department for editions in cast paper for Frank Gallo. During this time, he also started Glass Lake Studio, producing decorative and functional blown glass. For the past twenty years, he was been selling his work through art fairs, galleries, shows, and commissions, offering workshops and lessons, and winning numerous awards.
In March of 2010 he started working for New Prairie. As part of his continuing education, Barrie attended a timber-framing workshop in 2014. He enjoys learning new skills in building greener living spaces, and is very interested in self-sustainable energy resources and lifestyle. He also likes to spend time fishing, hiking, camping, gardening, making wine, and sculpting hand-blown glass.
See an extended biography for Barrie, along with some pictures of his work.
Tonya Randall, Office Manager
A native of the area, Tonya graduated from St. Joe Ogden High School and received an Associate of Applied Sciences from Parkland College. Prior to joining the New Prairie team, she spent 15 years in corporate accounting. Tonya came on board in February of 2012. She enjoys the feel and flow of the New Prairie office environment.
When she is not pecking on the keyboard or organizing, you can find Tonya playing a hand of euchre, hanging with friends, attending/hosting fire pit parties, or reading on a Sunday afternoon.
Claire Johnson, Carpenter
Claire grew up in Urbana and attended University High School. After receiving her degree in Integrative Biology at the U of I, she briefly broke out of the C-U vortex and spent the next year chasing birds in the Sierra Nevada, WWOOFing in Honduras, volunteering at a sugarbush, and working on an organic farm. She had her first introduction to construction work after returning to Urbana and helping her friends build an addition for the Herbert Brün Society. She was excited to join New Prairie in 2015 and hopes to learn more about sustainable and energy efficient building.
In her spare time, Claire can be found fiddling throughout the midwest, staring through binoculars, making slow progress on house projects, and digging in the garden.
Ruthie Sussman, Carpenter
Born in New Jersey, Ruthie moved to the CU in 2005, started at Urbana High School in 2013, and joined New Prairie in summer of 2016. Her interest in carpentry began with involvement in UHS’s Habitat for Humanity, and their annual trip to Tutwiler, Mississippi to build homes in low income communities. She is excited to learn about sustainable building practices and develop new skills.
Ruthie also likes wandering in the woods, watching documentaries, and tie-dying.
Laura Gillen, Carpenter
Laura was born in Paris, grew up near Akron, Ohio, and lived in Pittsburgh, where she earned her BFA in Painting at Carnegie-Mellon University in 1987. She got her first taste of carpentry after college, when she helped remodel a friend’s row house in Pittsburgh. In 1994 she moved to Brooklyn, NY, where she was hired as a Scenic Artist, working on TV and movie sets. Her favorite jobs were The Royal Tenenbaums and Angels in America. She left the movie business in 2003 to coordinate the build-out for the coffee shop she opened with her husband in Peekskill, NY. In 2012, she and her husband and son moved to Champaign to be near family. Before coming to work for New Prairie, Laura was doing odd jobs and decorative painting projects for businesses and homeowners in Champaign, while also working as a library clerk for Champaign Schools.
In her spare time, Laura makes and shows her paintings, goes hiking with her family, and reads as many books as she can.
Jill Houser, Carpenter
“My name is Jill Houser and I am originally from Asheville, NC where my family of builders still reside. During the summer my brother and I worked for a local builder/remodeler, and I soon became the painter of the company. After four years at Appalachian State University in Boone NC I graduated with a BFA in Studio Art with concentration in Sculpture and painting. Working with mixed media in fiber arts, ceramic, metal and found objects was my passion. Before returning home to Asheville I worked at various galleries in the High Country in a thriving, seasonal art market.
In 2003 I began studies at Asheville-Buncombe Technical College in a program offered through the London City and Guilds program in Decorative Techniques and Restoration. This program was initially offered to fulfill a lack of qualified artists and artisans required for the restoration of the Biltmore Estate, the nations’ largest, privately owned residence. This experience led to jobs with large companies specializing in restoration which took me all over the United States in theaters, churches, banks and federal buildings.
Beginning in 2004, I began contracting with an old friend and coworker of mine doing similar work; initially managing the interior restoration of a historic theater, then branching out into other realms of decorative and scenic painting- working with designers in private residences, mural and sign painting for The Bass Pro Shops, creating wall treatments and murals for restaurants, and large-scale, thematic painting for amusement parks and entertainment groups. For a period of time I lived in Knoxville, Tennessee and mostly stayed home with my children, but worked each spring in nearby Gatlinburg area, and renovated my 1912 home with the help of my father and brother, both building contractors.
As an independent contractor I was able to continue working in restoration while branching out into other fields, too. Going from scenic jobs at Dollywood Amusement in Eastern Tennessee to historic George Washington’s Mount Vernon in Virginia, then painting rooftop murals at Bass Pro Shops in New Jersey, Florida, Texas, then to a 1920 mural restoration at the Colorado National Bank in Denver… and to the Historic Virginia Theater in Champaign.
I live in Savoy with my partner and three children who love creating, reading, biking and hunting things. Creative writing, photography, cooking, running, movie-watching, art-making, camping, hiking, swimming, sewing, and of course painting are a few of my favorite things. Building and renovation is a useful passion of mine. People have joked that instead of a Jack, I am a Jill of all trades. It is with great excitement that I begin this journey with such a reputable, experienced company, and I anticipate learning so much with a great group of people.”
Eli Shenk, Carpenter
Eli grew up on a farm in Arcola, Illinois where his early career was spent building houses and forts out of wooden blocks and bales of straw. From there, he helped his father renovate a century home in Urbana using slightly larger wooden blocks, and then moved to California where he spent two years building a real house out of bales of straw.
Eli has a passion for restoring and renovating older houses and working with reclaimed wood and natural materials. When he’s not working for NPCC you can either find him building chess sets and other smaller projects in his shop or playing Dungeons and Dragons with his friends.
Lincoln Pansuriya, Solar Engineer
Lincoln says: “My mom once advised me, ‘Look for the job that you would take if you didn’t need a job.’ I am happy to say that I now have the one.”
Born and raised in India, Lincoln moved to the United States for his graduate studies in Sustainable Energy at Eastern Illinois University. At EIU, He worked as graduate research assistant at Renewable Energy Centre. Before beginning graduate school, he pursued a Bachelor’s Degree in Mechanical Engineering. He earned his Professional Certificate in Energy Innovation from Stanford University. He also interned with Smart Electric Power Alliance (SEPA) and Climate Institute in Washington D.C.
He wants to serve the community and dedicate his life to solar energy as a matter of ethical choice. He is exceptionally passionate about solar energy technologies and how those technologies can end the energy dependency of the world.
While not doing solar work, he spends his time meeting new people, hiking, cooking, and reading spiritual, business, and energy books.
Ian Summers, Carpenter
Ian grew up in Indiana and attended Indiana University, where he graduated with a Bachelor of Arts degree in History. After college he led volunteers at Habitat for Humanity, and worked as a carpenter’s assistant and painter. He started working at New Prairie in 2017, where he has since enjoyed working on a variety of projects and learning from his seasoned co-workers.
In his free time Ian enjoys riding his bike and playing his guitar. He also spends time learning new ways to cook lentils.