The Difference Between Container Homes and ADUs

The Difference Between Container Homes and ADUs

How To Pick the Best Alternative Housing Solution for You | Container Homes and ADUs

adu and container homes differences

Over the past few years, the demand for all forms of alternative housing has been steadily growing. Accessory dwelling units (ADUs), container homes, tiny houses, RVs, and other types of alternative housing options have been all over the media — and for a good reason! Research has shown that there’s a steady 8.6% year-over-year growth rate when it comes to building ADUs.

Now, as we know, the concept of ADUs and alternative housing isn’t new. However, the popularity is. As the housing crisis intensifies (especially in high-cost, job-rich, affluent areas and big cities), more and more people are looking into ways of either obtaining or providing alternative housing.

The Revolution (And Revamping) of Alternative Housing

Ever since the 1950s, when the housing and community development in big cities started to really quicken and single-family homes began to pop up like mushrooms after rain, the concept of high-density communities existed. 

However, back then, the American dream of owning plenty of square feet per family member was still in full swing. Not to mention, it was obtainable. Thus, ideas such as tiny living and ADUs that would diversify and densify high-cost areas were shut down.

Back then, property owners couldn’t build additional units on their property. For example, Granny flats or container homes weren’t something that you could easily see in the greater Los Angeles area.

Of course, thanks to the devastating affordable housing crisis, things have drastically changed. The California Department of Housing and Community Development and the entire Californian government have turned over a new leaf in the last couple of years. New rules, regulations, and laws now allow for ADUs and shipping container homes to grace the backyards of property owners in the hopes of providing desperately needed affordable housing to low-income community members. 

Differences Between Container Homes and ADUs

Differences Between Container Homes and ADUs

Last week, we dug a little bit deeper into container homes as a potential alternative housing option. We mentioned how they are affordable, easy to build and maintain, and overall eco-friendly. But how do they differ from ADU? Is building an ADU a better idea?

Overall, building an accessory dwelling unit (ADU) is an excellent idea for all homeowners that want to expand their living space or earn extra income. However, building a container home might seem easier and quicker. So what’s the bottom line? What are the differences?

The Design

One of the significant differences between ADUs and container homes is, of course, the design. First of all, ADUs are fully functional homes that are designed from scratch. There are various types out there, but depending on what you need and can afford in terms of money and lot size, you can pretty much design them any way you want to. 

Limitations In Size

Container homes don’t really offer the same liberty. You’re pretty limited by their size. Of course, you can always put multiple containers together. However, that does mean you’ll have to invest more money.

Windows And Natural Light

Windows And Natural Light

But that’s not all. As soon as you cut a hole in the container, it loses the structural integrity it had. That means that doors, windows, and all other holes need to be made carefully. It also means you have to reinforce the entire container wall after you do it. Although that’s not such a hassle, it does limit you.

For example, it’s quite challenging to install floor-to-ceiling windows in container homes. That, of course, isn’t the case with ADUs. Since you’re building them from scratch, you can install as many windows (and thus, let in as much natural light) as you want.

ADUs also allow for some design features such as porches and sloped roofs that container homes don’t. And, speaking off, flat roofs that are the signature feature of container homes can turn problematic after a couple of years. 

Depending on the general weather conditions in your area, they might not even be the best choice for you since heavy snowfall and rainfall can deteriorate them. 


ADUs can be made, so they fit into the general aesthetic of not only the property but also the neighborhood. Container homes are made out of steel, and, no matter what you do to them, they’ll have that industrial, edgy look. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, but it doesn’t really fit into every community. 

Furthermore, container homes might be more challenging to rent out. An ADU that fits into your property and is made with tiny living in mind (and from scratch) is a more desirable rental unit than a container home. 

Structural Integrity

As mentioned, a container loses integrity as soon as you cut into it. That can be an issue only if you don’t reinforce it with steel. 

However, even if you do, you still need to insulate the entire thing. Shipping containers are sturdy and durable. However, they are also thin and lightweight. Even though California winters aren’t harsh, you’ll still need more protection from the weather than a thin sheet of steel. That cuts down on container homes’ “quick and easy” build time.


container homes or adus

Theoretically, since the state has removed many rules and regulations regarding minimum lot size and maximum ADU size, your ADU can be as big as you need it to be. That’s precisely why Cedar Dwellings offers three different ones that vary in square footage. 

With a container home, you can’t really do much in terms of size. Sure, you can stack containers together or even on top of each other, but that comes with a lot of reinforcement.

That means you’re quite limited when it comes to what you can put inside of the container homes. In other words, a full bathroom might be an unattainable dream.

Health Hazards and Eco-Friendliness

As mentioned, the main difference between ADUs and container homes is in the way they are built and designed. You build ADUs from scratch while you repurpose old shipping containers to build a container home. Now, the latter allows you to have a good starting base you can bounce off of. You don’t have to deal with mixing and pouring concrete and all those other construction site nonsense.

However, depending on what the shipping container was used for, it might have been treated with various chemicals that are potentially hazardous. You might try to circumvent that by buying a brand new container. However, then you lose the eco-friendly factor. You aren’t reusing and upcycling a container if you buy a brand new one, right?

Although ADUs aren’t as eco-friendly as recycling, they do involve sustainable building. 

Contractors and Builders

Picking the right builder is crucial for your ADU project. A great, experienced builder will ensure that your project goes off without a hitch, doesn’t cost an arm and a leg, and doesn’t cause you unnecessary stress.

The same goes for shipping container home builders. However, the catch is that they are extremely hard to find. Redesigning and reconstructing a shipping container isn’t exactly a common skill. Therefore, you might have trouble finding a company that will construct your container home.

Construction Site Challenges

Aside from finding a good contractor, you might also have construction site issues. While it’s a great benefit that you don’t have to pour out the foundations, you still have to bring your container to your lot. That involves hiring a crane. Depending on your lot size and location, that might not be doable.

Interior Design Obstacles

Modern appliances require a fully-functional electrical setup. Aside from finding a contractor who will know how to construct a shipping container home, you’ll also have to find an electrician who’s familiar with shipping container architecture. Installing an electrical setup in an ADU is much easier as it doesn’t require any special skills. 

Adding Value to Your Property

ADUs inherently add value to your property. In other words, even if you don’t rent them out, you can make good money on them when you decide to sell your property. Not to mention, thanks to new ADU laws, you can even sell ADUs independently of your original single-family house. 

Overall, owning an ADU can be quite profitable. Owning a container home can also be profitable. After all, you can use it and rent it out just like an ADU. However, when it comes to the resale value, container homes simply aren’t at the ADU levels yet. Although it’s projected that the global container home market will grow 3.7% over the next five years, that projection isn’t certain. Thus, neither is ROI.

Build the ADU of Your Dreams With Cedar Dwellings

The differences between container homes and ADUs are stark. Although ADUs cost more, they ultimately are a better investment (that offers more ROI). Aside from that, ADUs are also:

  • better designed than container homes
  • offer more freedom when it comes to the floor plan
  • without exterior and interior design obstacles
  • easier to get a permit for
  • excellent when it comes to adding value to your property 

If you’re looking to expand your living space (be it to have more for yourself or rent out), and are considering building an ADU in your backyard, give us a call! Our turn-key solutions and fast turnaround times will get you a dream-come-true ADU in no time!