Julie Birdwell, Co-owner & 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.
Erik Paulson, Co-owner, 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, Co-owner, Bid Estimator
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.
Antonio Juarez, Co-owner, 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, Co-owner, 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.
Barrie Bredemeier, Co-owner, 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.
Shir Ahmad Popalzai, Solar Installer
My name is Shir Ahmad Popalzai, I was born in 1985 in Afghanistan, and I studied at Sultan Mahmood high school from 1999 – 2004. After graduation from high school, in 2005 I started studying Electrical Engineering in Kabul Polytechnic University, so I got my bachelor’s degree in electrical engineering in 2010. Hereinafter, I found my first job in Afghan Telecom communication company as a Power Manager and worked there for 6 months. The Afghan Telecom’s project completed within that 6 months, and my contract ended with this company. Then, I started my second job as an Electrical Engineer in DABS Electricity company in 2012 and have worked for them until 2014. My last job in Afghanistan was with US. Army Corps of Engineers as a Quality Assurance Engineer. I have worked for USACE from 2014 up to 2019. Finally, because of the bad security situation in Afghanistan I emigrated to United states in June 2019, and then joined New Prairie Construction Company in March 2020 and have been working here in Solar Renewable Energy.
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.
Brian Barnick, Solar Designer & Project Manager
Brian’s background is deeply rooted in the agriculture industry. While working in the ag field, Brian became interested in renewable energy, beginning with the conversion of a non-invasive, perennial, sustainable grass into bio-fuel. As time progressed, Brian’s interest grew to include wind and solar, so much so that his interest evolved into a business installing and servicing residential wind turbines and solar arrays. Brian joined our solar team in 2019, and brings a wealth of knowledge and experience to the New Prairie Solar program.
In his down time, Brian also enjoys spending time with his family and in the outdoors.
Waheed Asmati, Construction Engineer & Solar Installer
Waheed was born in Afghanistan and attended Kabul Polytechnics University, where he received a Bachelor’s degree in Construction Engineering. From 2008-2011, he worked for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers in Kandahar, Afghanistan. During that time he received extra training in safety and in Construction Quality Management.
Waheed came to the United States in July 2017 and began work for New Prairie in October 2017. He can speak Dari and Pashto as well as English, and when he’s not working, he likes to take part in active sports, study, and spend time with friends.
Doug Scatterday, Business/Operations Manager
Doug grew up and lived in the western suburbs of Chicago until his relocation to the Champaign area in 2015. Having graduated from Elmhurst College with a BS in Accounting, Doug has held positions in finance, operations management, sales, and marketing throughout his career.
Doug is an enthusiastic DIYer with a passion for rebuilding/refinishing old things. He recently rebuilt a 1976 ski boat and likes boating on Lake Shelbyville. As an avid outdoors person, Doug enjoys backpacking, hiking, biking, fishing, and mountain climbing with his wife Dawn.
Doug also loves spending time with their children, gardening, and playing guitar.
Cody Kern, Solar Installer
Cody grew up in St. Joseph, Illinois. Many of his family members are in the construction industry and he decided to pursue carpentry and remodeling. Cody graduated from St. Joseph-Ogden High School in 2018. He graduated from Parkland College with an Associated Degree in Construction and Design Management in 2020. He also had an internship with the Illinois Department of Transportation. In his free time, he enjoys fitness and spending time with family.
Kieffer Tucker, Solar Installer
My name is Kieffer Tucker and I am an apprentice carpenter at New Prairie. I worked in the restaurant industry for ten years before making a career change to construction. Following a series of home remodel projects I did for myself I decided to seek out further education at Parkland college. There I was accepted into the HCCTP (highway construction careers training program) where I received a broad variety of training and certifications. After Graduating the HCCTP I did odd jobs for about a year before finding an opportunity to work for New Prairie. My time with New Prairie is both challenging and rewarding. I am very happy to be a part of a great team as I grow into becoming a carpenter.
Zach Kleiss, Solar Installer
Zach comes from a local farming community. He started learning carpentry on his family farms at the age of 14. The oldest family farm has an original renovated home, barn, crib, stable and buggy shed dating back to 1888. He earned a Bachelor’s Degree in Biology with a concentration in the First Responder Program from Eastern Illinois University class of 2011.
He has graduated from Illinois Fire Service Institute’s Fire Academy and been a volunteer firefighter most of his life. He obtained an EMT license from Parkland College and worked as an EMT in trauma bays as a wound care technician. While always working as a carpenter, Zach gained restoration and construction knowledge over 18 years. He joined New Prairie Construction Company as a Carpenter fall of 2020.
Mirwais Amarkhil, Solar Installer
Mirwais was born in Afghanistan and attended Kabul Polytechnics and Bakhtar University. From 2014-2019 he worked for the Audit Division CSTC-A RSHQ in Kabul, Afghanistan as an auditor and cultural advisor.
Mirwais came to the United States in April 21, 2019 and began to work for New Prairie in August of 2019. He can speak Pashto and Dari as well as English fluently. Mirwais will be certified NABCEP Associate and continue to further his education in the renewable energy field.
Mohammad Halim Popalzai, Solar Installer
Halim studied at Kabul Polytechnics University and worked for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers in Herat, Afghanistan as a Quality Assurance Engineer for construction. During this period, he received extra training in Construction Quality control, Management and Safety.
Halim has 14+ years of work experience in Building construction, Road construction, and Power transmission line, and has worked for various companies such as U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, TETRA TECH INC, Angel Lazaro and Associates Consulting Engineers and Architects, H. P. Gauff Ingenieure GmbH & Co. KG, Germany, International Relief and Development (IRD) SPR/USAID and FTH Joint Venture.
Halim arrived in the United States in March of 2020, and started work with New Prairie as a Solar installer in June, 2021.
Halim speaks English, Dari and Pashto as well. In 2021, he began take classes at Parkland College in Construction Management.
Enayatullah Azizi, , Solar Installer
Born in Afghanistan, Enayatullah graduated from Kabul Polytechnic University in Survey and Road Construction. He came to the United State in January, 2019.
With 12 years of construction experience behind him, Enayatullah joined the New Prairie Solar Team in 2021. He speaks English, Dari and Pashto, and is OSHA 10 and OSHA 30 certified.
Nate Becks, Solar Technical Sales and Design
Nate grew up in a northern suburb of Cincinnati, Ohio. After graduating from The Ohio State University with a Bachelors of Science in Landscape Architecture, he relocated to Champaign in May of 2020. Nate worked as a landscape designer in Bloomington and Champaign for over a year. He became more interested in the intersection of sustainability and design, leading him to join the New Prairie Solar team in August of 2021. He hopes to learn more about green energy and how it can be applied through design practices.
Nate and his partner have two dogs, a corgi and a husky/lab mix, that occupy most of their free time. They enjoy hiking and visiting different parks in the area. Nate is also passionate about plants and photography.