At Sebastian Mariscal's age, many young architects and designers are still struggling to find their sea legs. They're chasing small remodeling jobs, hoping to build a track record of success that will bring larger commissions in the future. But while they're treading water in their fledgling practices, Mariscal is sailing full speed ahead.

A designer, builder, and developer of boutique projects and custom homes in San Diego, the 37-year-old Mariscal oversees a thriving firm with a growing body of impressive work. Instantly recognizable, his buildings stress function and simplicity while exuding an understated luxury in their stainless steel, ipe, and limestone sheathing. For his efforts, he's amassed a string of local AIA citations and garnered a 2003 Home of the Year Award from Architecture magazine.

Mariscal's success has spawned a comfortable—if hectic—life. He, his wife, Maricarmen, and their two young children live in a hillside house overlooking the Pacific Ocean in tony La Jolla, Calif. He zips around town in a Mini Cooper or on a Vespa scooter, and the commute to his office in Sorrento Valley is a mere 12-minute drive on I–5. These days, he juggles his time visiting clients in Mexico, managing his local projects and 12-person firm, and teaching a master's in development class at Woodbury University's satellite campus. Gregarious and well-mannered, Mariscal's restless ambition brims right below the surface. Despite his already notable accomplishments, he is driven to constantly reinvent himself and his work. “He has a tremendous energy and is just fearless,” says Mariscal's friend and mentor, Jonathan Segal, FAIA. It's a boldness that traces back to his early years south of the border.

mexico way Born in Mexico City, Mariscal was introduced to the design profession by his father, Raúl Octavio Mariscal, a local architect and developer of affordable housing. In 1985, while his teenage chums played soccer and fretted about their social lives, he was in his father's office perfecting his AutoCAD skills and learning about the manipulation of space and light. “I always wanted to be an architect when I was a kid,” he says. “I was very involved in [my father's] architecture and went to his jobsites on the weekends.”

The younger Mariscal moonlighted for his father through high school and during his first semester at the Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México, but he was anxious to forge his own path in design/build. So in 1988, at the precocious age of 18, he launched his own firm while still in architecture school. Not surprisingly, work came slowly for the new practice. But a successful ranch remodel for a neighbor launched a string of other residential and commercial projects, including several office buildings and a television transfer station. “I had a firm of six to eight people, and I was very busy and productive,” Mariscal says. However, with professional success came frustration with the pace of his studies and the school's concentration on theoretical projects that would never get built, he says. So he quit school to concentrate on his practice full time. “My passion was to design and to build,” he explains.

By 1995, with an impressive 17 buildings under his belt but hungering for a broader world view, Mariscal shuttered his practice and moved to Barcelona, Spain. He found work with Spanish modernist Tonet Sunyer and studied theory and construction at the School of Architecture of Barcelona. “I felt I needed to be exposed to new experiences and learning in Europe,” he says. “I was starting to feel too comfortable, I guess. I was 25 years old, so the timing was perfect.” After two years, he packed up again and headed west to California, where he landed a job with Segal's eponymous San Diego firm.

california dreamin' Mariscal couldn't have picked a better mentor than Segal, whom many consider the most important architect/developer in the city. From Segal, he learned the essential elements of developing—finding a partner, acquiring land, securing financing, and dealing with the powerful non-profit Centre City Development Corp., which has a say in all construction projects downtown. While working with Segal, Mariscal completed his first San Diego project—State and Date, two single-family houses that would also serve as his residence. He picked up its 1,550-square-foot corner lot for $200,000, and with little to spend on hard costs, he wrapped the 2,750-square-foot live/work units in stainless steel and redwood, establishing his trademark palette of lush materials. Because he had little time or money to spare for the project, he devised a resourceful system to speed construction. He rented an adjacent lot and then ordered precut lumber to prefabricate the walls while foundation work was under way on the building site. “We built the two units from start to finish in four months,” which saved money on interest payments and labor, Mariscal says.