When Superintendent Larry Nyland realized there were 117 portables scattered throughout the Marysville School District a few years ago...

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When Superintendent Larry Nyland realized there were 117 portables scattered throughout the Marysville School District a few years ago, he put his foot down.

No more portables, he said.

But it was no easy task figuring out how to stop buying the inexpensive mobile classrooms, yet still do something about facilities that were bursting at the seams and aging portables that were housing entire schools.

In the end, the district didn’t wind up abandoning the portable concept, but it did depart from the portable stereotype.

The district decided to construct new digs for three schools that look and feel like traditional buildings, but are actually made of prefabricated modular pieces. The multiroom schools were built in chunks in a Smokey Point factory, put on trucks and pieced together on site in a few months.

In less than a year, Arts and Technology High School, Heritage High School and Tenth Street Middle School have sprouted on a single site, which the district owns on the Tulalip Tribes Reservation, to form Marysville’s Secondary Campus. The final sections of the campus are expected to be opened at the end of April.

“It was a creative coming together of a lot of possibilities,” Nyland said.

The concept of modular construction is not new in the commercial world, but it is a novel one for school construction in Washington, particularly for a campus of this scale.

The building cost for the entire new 84,000-square-foot campus was $24 million. It will cost about four times that much to build the district’s new conventionally constructed high school, scheduled to open in 2010.

After nearly a decade of operating classes out of aging portables, Heritage High School moved 86 students and seven staff members into its new 11,500-square-foot modular home two weeks ago.

“It’s really making all the difference in the world. The kids feel valued,” said Heritage principal Martha Fulton. “They never dreamed they would have a new building that was just theirs.”

Heritage follows the December opening of the 400-student Arts and Technology High School. A shared gym (the only traditional construction on the campus) and commons area will open in a few weeks, and Tenth Street Middle School, which will serve about 200 students, is scheduled to open at the end of April.

Since the schools are still technically considered portables, they don’t hurt the district’s state funding formula, said John Bingham, the school district’s capital-projects director.

Instead of relying on a capital-bond measure, the campus will be paid for by builder-mitigation fees on new housing. These fees are about $7,000 per home, and go to pay for parks, transportation and schools, Bingham said.

Other districts in the state are already buzzing about the campus.

Jim Hansen, director of construction and planning at Bethel School District in Pierce County, said the average cost for a school in the state is about $300-350 per square foot. Marysville built its campus for $180 per square foot.

“I want to explore it because, as a person in this business, you should never be closed-minded about anything,” Hansen said, noting that rising construction costs have him scouting for cost-effective building techniques. “If there are ways to save money, sign me up for that.”

Burlington-Edison School District Superintendent Richard Jones, who visited the site as the buildings were being put together in Marysville, said people get into a “mobile-home mind-set” when they hear about this type of construction.

He was surprised by the quality of the buildings, but said there are still questions that have yet to be answered.

“The wear and tear on schools is tremendous,” he said. “The consideration is whether these schools will hold up.”

Bingham said the same products used in conventional buildings were used in the modular buildings, which are built for a 30-year life.

“They’re built better than the older portables, and the quality of materials is so much better,” Bingham said.

Christina Siderius: 425-745-7813 or csiderius@seattletimes.com