Container Homes vs Traditional Homes: Ultimate Comparison

Container homes vs traditional homes: which one is better? Are container homes more worth it than traditional homes? Let’s find out!

Container vs traditional
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With the Covid-19 happening, a lot of families have been looking for cheaper housing alternatives to conventional, stick-built houses. One of the more affordable ways to build a house is through shipping container homes.

But are houses built with containers worth it? Does it stand against the engineering aspects, strength, integrity, safety and cost of traditional homes built with concrete and wood?

While the main contender is usually the cost being cheaper, there are a lot of other aspects you should consider in houses built out of containers. We’re here to answer those important questions.

PS. Are you planning to build a house in the Philippines? Plan ahead with ARCGO! We offer general construction services, as well as container house kits. Plus, if you want to plan ahead with your house fixtures or home improvement renovation, we have a plethora of selected products offered at a low cost. Get in touch.

The Quick Comparison: Container Homes VS Conventional Homes

Quick Comparison between shipping container Homes Vs Conventional Homes vs prefab container house
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  • To start off, shipping container architecture has a distinct aesthetics from traditional homes. They have a corrugated steel exterior, with most designs having a simple, box-like form. 
  • Prefabricated container houses are similar in style with shipping container homes, but have a more modular look in it. 
  • Compared to traditional houses, shipping container homes and prefabricated homes are highly customizable and can be arranged in any architectural style you want.

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Cost: 15% to 50% Savings for Container Homes

  • Shipping container houses and prefabricated houses are generally more affordable options than stick built, conventional houses.
  • Large-scale container office buildings or container apartments with multiple shipping containers may require extra steel reinforcement, which can add to its costs.

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Construction and Strength: Corten Steel is Stronger than Wood

  • Cargo storage container buildings made from corrugated Corten steel, which are generally stronger than the lumber light-frame construction used in traditional homes.

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Faster to Build: Container Houses are More Seamless

high end finish container house honomobo
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Image courtesy of Honomobo
  • Traditional homes made from wood and concrete are the slowest to construct and finish and are subject to construction delays.
  • Shipping cargo container houses take a few weeks up to a month to finish. It depends on the complexity of your house plan and finishing work you want. They also follow the traditional construction timeline and might be subjected to delays.
  • Prefab manufactured homes take only days to prepare. They are pre-built in factories and shipped to your site. They take way faster time to assemble and install and it usually has everything you need (electrical, insulation, windows, doors, etc).

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Now that you have the short answers, let’s dive deeper into the more detailed discussion.

Shipping Container House vs Prefabricated Container House

There are two types of container houses. These are the shipping container house and a prefabricated container house. Confused between the two? Let us shed a light for you.

Shipping Container House

shipping container home with elegant lighting and with rooftop design
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Shipping container house
Image Source: PrefabMarket.com

Shipping container homes are houses built out of containers. These are made from recycled cargo containers that have only been used once or a few times. 

Since these have been used before to store imported and exported goods, shipping container house builders need to thoroughly clean, reinforcement and test them before construction. This is to make sure they don’t contain harmful residues.

If you want to modify its shape into a luxury house, you might need extra planning and design for your shipping containers to fit with your needs.

Here’s a video of a shipping container house:

What Can You Build with Cargo Containers?

Building with cargo containers is a greater choice if you want to customize or form off-beat structures.

  • Complex Storage Container Buildings
  • High Rise Container Office Buildings
  • Container Apartment Buildings
  • Stunning Restaurants built from reused containers
  • Malls and Hotels

For customized buildings, the cost may be somewhat equal to traditional construction. Needless to say, you’ll get a fresh, unique architecture especially if you want to stand out.

For example, take a look at the Starburst-shaped shipping container house for Joshua Tree, designed by James Whitaker.

star shaped shipping container house
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The unbuilt 0 Wagon Wheel Road residence is listed for $3.5 million

Prefabricated Container House

Prefabricated container house compound
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Prefabricated container house Image Source: PrefabMarket.com

Prefab modular homes are factory built or manufactured homes shipped into your site for assembly. Once delivered to your site, you would only need to install the frame, install the wall panels, windows, doors, lighting and floor. These are all provided with the container house package.

Watch this video of a prefab container home:

What Can You Build with Prefab Containers?

  • Modular Container Buildings
  • Small Prefab budget houses
  • Prefab Mobile Homes
  • Prefab Townhouse
  • 2-story Modular homes
  • Luxury Prefab Homes
  • Simple Office Building

General Comparison

Shipping container homes and prefab modular homes both usually save money, compared with conventional home construction. This is because they require less construction labor and cost for a general contractor than traditional houses.

But when we compare shipping container construction to prefab modular container homes, the former will usually generate more waste materials from construction and more time to finish.

Container Homes vs Traditional Homes

Now that we are clear with the difference between a prefab and shipping container house, let’s do an intensive comparison between container homes in general and conventional houses.

Cost: Construction & Installation

In short, container house construction can save you 15% to 50% on construction costs depending on the complexity of the project. 

The ballpark figure for traditional houses range from 20,000 PHP/sqm to 60,000 PHP/sqm. A prefab container house, on the other hand, roughly costs a minimum of 15,000 PHP/sqm (based on 1-20ft unit cost divided by its area). 

See the difference?

Let’s elaborate..

Traditional House Construction Costs in the Philippines 2021

Below you can see the typical house construction cost per square meter in the Philippines in 2021. 

Traditional House TypeFeaturesCost per SQM in the Philippines (2021)
EconomicWall: plain cement finish
Floor: paint, plaster
Ceiling: Flat ceiling, 
Roof: Corrugated metal roof
20,000 PHP/sqm (~$416)
Standard FinishWall: ceramic tiles or wall paper, laminate, brick finish
Ceiling: Coves
Roof: aluminum sheets, concrete tiles, clay tiles
28,000 PHP/sqm (~$583)
High-End FinishFloor: granite tiles, wood flooring
Walls: Stone claddings, glass mosaics, wood stones, aluminum composite panels, leather, fabric, glass blocks
Ceiling: Spanish tile roof, clay tile roof, complicated framing
45,000 PHP/sqm (~$940)
economic traditional house render
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Economic Finish
standard house finish cost
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Standard Finish
high end house finish cost
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High-End Finish
2 storey prefab container restaurant
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Prefabricated Container House

Container House Construction Cost

Compare these values with the cost of container house construction below.

FeaturesCosts per 20-ft unit
Prefab Modular ContainerReinforced with columns, girders and beams
Walls: 50 mm Rock wool/ Glass Wool Sandwich Panel
Roof: 50 mm Rock wool/ Glass Wool  Sandwich Panel with Calcium Silicate Board/ PVC Ceiling
Door: Aluminum Alloy Security Door
Flooring: MGO Fireproof Board
Windows: PVC sliding window
With Thermal InsulationWith Electricity cable and equipments
180,000 PHP
Site preparation (Excavation, Laying Foundation, etc.) 32,500 PHP
Assembly4 workers to assemble (minimum 1 day work)*Worker salary = 70 PHP per hr x 8 hours per day2,240 PHP
Miscellaneous 50,000 PHP
Total ~270,000 PHP

A 20 ft container has a floor area of 160 ft2 (20 ft length x 8 ft width). In meters, that would be  14.872 sqm (6.098 m x 2.439 m). 

Computing for the cost per sqm of our example, the container house costs 

270,000 Php ÷ 14.872 sqm = 18,154.8 PHP/ sqm.

Example: 

Example: 1-storey small apartment with 1 bedroom, 1 bath, kitchen and dining

Finish: Economic Finish

Total Area: 35.7 sqm

*For a total area of 35.7 sqm, this can be covered by 2 units of 20ft container.

shipping container house with solar panel on top visualization
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interior design container house
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Traditional House Construction Cost = 20,000 PHP x 35.7 SQM = 714,000 PHP ($14,875)

Container House = 270,000 PHP (based on computation above) x 2 units = 540,000 PHP ($11,250)

Hence, you’ll save over 32% when you use prefab containers in this scenario. 

However, note that the above example is just a rough estimate. Using container homes can result in half as much per square meter than traditional stick buildings. There are factors that can influence the price fluctuation, such as the type of finish you want. Other factors include:

  • Size, design, layout
  • Number of containers
  • How much welding and fabrication needed
  • Cleaning of containers
  • Plumbing and electrical
  • Flooring
  • Kitchen and bathroom finish
  • Siding
  • Lofts
  • Doors and Windows
  • Insulation
  • etc.

low cost prefabricated housing
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Low-income housing made from shipping containers in the Philippines

In the Philippines, pre-built houses such as container vans and prefabricated houses have attracted a lot of attention, especially that it costs cheaper and faster to build. 

Strength

Shipping containers are originally made from Corten Steel, a weathering steel which prevents formation of rusts and mitigates corrosion. These cargo containers are weather resistant, resistant to hurricanes and strong winds, earthquakes and tornadoes. The maximum stacking capacity can be up to 8 or 9 units high. 

How Long Container Houses Last?

The lifespan often varies from 15 to 50 years, depending on how well it’s built and how well you maintain it. A well-kept shipping container home can even have a resale value close to a traditional home.

For factory-built container homes, these units are made in the factory, and are not intended to be a cargo container on the ocean. Hence, they are constructed to fit the requirements of a traditional home which lasts long. They are made with different grades of steel and paint with customizable doors and window openings. 

As prefabricated shipping container buildings are built according to building standards, they are intended to have a longer lifespan than the corten steel used in cargo containers.

Do shipping container homes depreciate?

Like traditional homes, shipping container homes does depreciate. Since they are made from steel, the ultimate problem can be rusting. 

However, corten steel is actually using its rusted surface as a protective layer to inhibit further rusting. This way, Corten steel resists corrosion more than other types of steel.

The main reason why your shipping container house can depreciate is due to condensation. If you reuse watertight cargo containers for building your home, make sure you prevent placing them in a damp ground. 

Painted and finished containers prevent condensation. Opening the windows and doors is also a good way of letting condensation out.

Renovation

For longevity, the roof of a shipping container should be properly maintained, including its rain drainage. If you want access to the rooftop, you can ask your prefab container supplier or container house contractor to put reinforcement on the roof.

Roof

A storage container home may require a secondary roof as they lack structural stability in that area. While containers have strong reinforced corners, and are excellent in withstanding forces at the sides, building an additional roof is necessary.

Construction Timeline

Below is a comparison of how long it takes to finish building a prefab container home, reused shipping container home and traditional home.

How Long to Build a Prefab Container House?

If you want a pre-built container house shipped to your lot, it will only take a few days to a month to finish the livable house.

prefab container house building process diagram
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When it comes to rapid construction, prefabricated containers are usually associated with it. 

Since these units are already pre-built in a factory, you will only need to contact a supplier to ship these units to your site. Assembly can only take days or a few months depending on the complexity.

Want an example? Take a look at the 2 hospital buildings built in Wuhan, Hubei, China in just 10 days! These are made with prefab modular houses transported from a factory and assembled on site.

hospital in wuhan built in 10 days made from prefabricated container house
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How Long to Build a Shipping Container House?

It will take 6 to 9 months to build a house out of shipping containers, similar to a traditional house.

Once your cargo containers are transported to your site, it would need to be cleaned, cut, formed and welded according to your house design. A lot of reinforcements are needed especially if you’re cutting a lot of holes for windows and doors.

on site construction of shipping container home
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How Long to Build a Traditional Container House?

It usually takes 6 to 9 months to construct a house project in the Philippines. Again, this depends on the design complexity of your design.

Wrapping Up

So, have you decided which is better for you: container house or traditional house? If you’re as excited as us in building your first house, you can consult us for more detailed discussion. Whether its a container house or traditional brick and concrete house you want, Arcgo always offers low-cost house and building construction. Talk to us!

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About the Author:

Engr. Noelle Nicole Go is a Licensed Mechanical Engineer in the Philippines. She has participated in several projects in ARCGO. Currently, she manages the marketing sector of the company, as well as writing informational articles about home construction, home improvement and renovation.

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