The Melanau originally lived in longhouses. This was multipurpose in principle. Firstly it was for cooperation when work needs to be done and secondly, it was for the purpose of defence when under attack or siege. When the longhouse became too crowded, families move out to construct individual house with the same principles in mind. As such, Melanau houses are constructed very close together and linked by bridges to each unit. Being principally fishermen and farmer gatherers, they live close to the river, where it is convenient for them to go out to sea in their boat or go upriver to their farms in their dugout canoes.
The Melanau have their norms and taboos ruling their construction of their houses. Before raising the main pillar of the house, gold must be put on the top end of the pillar. This is believed to strengthen the pillar and the house of the Melanau. The pillar of the Melanau house is usually of belian timber (Sarawak ironwood). Before raising the pillar, a mixture of nails, salt, sugar and other needs for life and strength is placed in the hole where the pillar will stand. When raising the pillar, the root end of the tree must always be to the foundation of the house and the top end (the branches end) must be to the roof or the top of the house. After the raising of the main pillar, he will begin construction on the southern side of the building, the path of the sunrise. In ancient times, the pillar is usually one log measuring not less than 30 odd feet in height from foundation to the floor of the house and is usually about 50 odd feet from the foundation to the eave of the house and with a girth of not less that 5 feet in diameter. The height of the floor to the ground was measured by the highest reach of the point of the spear by the tallest warrior to the floorboard (je jejug besei or sticking of a spear). This was to enable them to effectively defend themselves. During the warring days in ancient times, the pillar will be guarded by men with boiling oil at the top and their duty was to prevent their enemies from approaching the pillar by pouring the oil on them when they try to do so.
It is taboo for the structure to be even in measurement i.e. it must be odd, meaning 37 feet and not 36 or 38 in length or breadth. The number of pillars, post, eaves and the like follow the same principles. Their calculations for the structure must also follow either of the three basic principles, i.e. puteri malambai, buaya terjun and dian (durian) sepucuk. The same applies to the steps into the house or inside the house. As such, a trader or merchant will ensure that his house is constructed on the puteri melambai design as it will always bring him good fortune.
The material for the Melanau house is usually ironwood (taeh or belian) for pillars and post, and for the aristocracy, iron wood planks also for their walls. For the average Melanau, the walls are sometimes the bark of the ironwood tree or even sago palm (balau or rhumbia) bark, for those poorer ones. The roofing may be belian shingles for the aristocracy or sago palm leaves for the others. The flooring is usually belian planks for all and sundry, except for the extremely wealthy aristocracy, who used tapang, whose brilliance and shine reflect their riches to flaunt, as their flooring. The walls for the houses depends on the wealth of the owner, the rich would have the luxury of the belian or the tapang wood, the middle class either belian or its bark and for the poor, the bark of the sago palm or its leaves, tied overlapping together. In the early days, the Melanau do not have or use nails to fasten pole to beam or flooring or walls. They used wooden pegs known as ‘pasak’ for the purpose.
It is also taboo for them to start construction during the month of Pemalei or on a Tuesday for it will bring them ill-fortune.