Luciano Marano | Bainbridge Island Review - Alison “Ali” Dennison, senior engineering geologist for Aspect Consulting, one of the companies behind the new Captain Johnston Blakely Elementary School, and mother of two Blakely students, stands before the new, in-progress facility.

Luciano Marano | Bainbridge Island Review - Alison “Ali” Dennison, senior engineering geologist for Aspect Consulting, one of the companies behind the new Captain Johnston Blakely Elementary School, and mother of two Blakely students, stands before the new, in-progress facility.

Countdown to class: Project geologist, island mom recounts her part in building new, better Blakely

As a geologist, Alison “Ali” Dennison knows that 19 days is a drop in the bucket, a blink in the eye of the long existence of a planet.

As a mother, she knows it’s going to make all the difference.

That’s because, standing in the rising shadow of the new Captain Johnston Blakely Elementary School on Friday, Aug. 16 — with enormous construction machines roaring while hard at work hard-hatted figures scurry this way and that, giant piles of dirt still looming in front of the building — Dennison knows that class is slated to begin in just 19 days.


“From what I know they’re totally on schedule,” Dennison said. “I’m involved enough to kind of sort of know what the schedule was, but you drive by in the morning and it’s like, ‘Oh, my God, are they going to be ready?’”

Still, she quickly reassures herself. After all, even as she watches the machines at work, Blakely Principal Reese Ande, in hard hat and neon vest, is taking a troop of excited teachers, all similarly clad, on a tour of the new facility.

“They have to be ready,” Dennison laughed. “There is a deadline.”

That is a fact.

The first day of school is Wednesday, Sept. 4. Late last month, in a report to the Bainbridge Island School District Tamela Van Winkle, the district’s director of facilities, operations and capital projects, said that construction crews were continuing to work overtime and on weekends to finish the job on time. She said the team was “cautiously optimistic” it will be ready for the September opening.

It seems fate shares the soon-to-be-returning students’ likely feelings about summer: Just a little more, please!

Wet weather earlier this year reportedly posed significant problems for construction crews, and the latest fly in the ointment is the ongoing painting of the Agate Pass Bridge. The Washington State Department of Transportation has imposed weight limits on the bridge, which Van Winkle said made it tough for the contractor hired to demolish the old Blakely school to bring heavy equipment to the site. The contractor thus used two smaller excavators instead, which took longer.

Still, Dennison is confident she’ll soon be packing her kids off to class. And while many reluctantly returning students may blame their parents for sending them back to school, hers will actually be right.

Because in addition to being an island mother of two Blakely students — a boy and girl, third- and first-graders, respectively — Dennison is the senior engineering geologist for Aspect Consulting, one of the companies behind the new school.

“Our engineers, geologists, hydrogeologists have been involved from the initial design through current construction of the new 51,400-square-foot building and the associated new utilities and roads,” said Mike Maisen, Aspect’s consulting senior technical editor.

“Aspect’s work included an assessment of the soils under the site to understand the geological conditions and seismic considerations to give the construction team the right parameters to build the new school’s foundations safely,” he explained.

With the entire region under threat from the supposedly imminent “Big One,” seismic considerations were a prime priority for Dennison.

“We were involved kind of through the full design process,” she said. “So the first question is, can we build what we want to build here? And how can we build it safely? So we did a fault study. The Mac’s Pond Fault runs through IslandWood and it ends south of the school and there’s no trace of it to the west of where it ends.

“We don’t want to build the school on something that has seen movement through it,” she explained. “The fault is when we see two different units next to each other that are two different ages. We wanted to make sure we didn’t see that rupture coming through any portion of the school. So we did a whole slew of subsurface investigations to help kind of figure out where the school should be kind of sited, where the safest place for it to be was, and then kind of helping through design. We give soil strengths and help the structural engineers figure out how to design the foundation systems.”

The site of the school is especially interesting for a geologist, as it’s actually named after what’s going on underground.

“Blakely Harbor Formation is a bedrock; it’s the name for the type of bedrock,” Dennison said.

“Bainbridge Island has absolutely fantastic geology. We’ve got glacial deposits hundreds of feet thick on the north end of the island, and on the south end of the island, we’re south of the Seattle fault zone, where we have five miles of uplift. So this bedrock used to be buried five miles below the ground’s surface 5 million years ago and now here it is on the surface again. I love that.”

Understanding the origins of the Blakely Harbor Formation and knowing the strength of the bedrock allowed Aspect to develop foundations for the new building, Maisen said.

“During construction, excavation for the new building revealed some colorful layers in the aptly named Blakely Harbor Formation bedrock that underlies the school,” he said. “The abundant colors are thought to be a result of the braided stream systems that flowed and deposited materials, and the process of these materials becoming a bedrock over millions of years. Our geologists also observed that some of the layers have been uplifted due to movement of the east-west thrust faults within the Seattle Fault Zone that cuts across the south end of Bainbridge Island.”

That uplifting sometimes brings with it timeless treasures. But slow your roll, Indiana Jones. Not that sort of treasure.

Still, it has Dennison pretty excited.

“It’s really fun. In the foundation we’re seeing pieces of organics, like a piece of wood that has survived through time from 5 million years ago and now here it is again at the surface,” she said. “[Bainbridge is] a great place to be a geologist.”

Dennison moved to Bainbridge Island about three years ago for work. She was born in Colorado and grew up in New Jersey before moving to Washington to go to college. She has since lived here and there in the Pacific Northwest. Her husband also works in science, as a consultant studying air quality.

Excited as she is about her kids attending the new, better Blakely, Dennison said she was surprised to find herself feeling a tinge of sadness at the razing of the old school.

“When the school was demolished I was like, ‘Eh, whatever. Things come and go.’

“But actually, to see it come down in pieces I did have this emotional attachment that was like, ‘Wow, that is kind of crazy, my kids did go there,’” she said. “I can’t imagine what it must have felt like for the people that saw it built, that went to school here, that have taught here now.”

A public open house is planned for later this year to show off the new facility, though no official date has yet been announced.

A meet-and-greet for students, teachers and parents is scheduled for 1 p.m. Tuesday, Sept. 3.

LPD Engineering is the civil engineer for the project. PCS Structural Solutions is the structural engineer for the project, and Construction Testing Laboratories, Inc. completed much of the materials testing for the project.

Mithun is the architect and Forma is the contractor/construction lead.

Founded in 2001 on Bainbridge Island, Aspect Consulting’s staff have been especially pleased to participate in the historic redesign and construction of the new Blakely, Maisen said.

“We know Blakely is a landmark in the community, and we are proud of our role in creating its new incarnation,” he said.

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