The distribution of intertidal organisms can depend on processes operating early in their life history. The ascidian Pyura praeputialis, a mid- to low-intertidal habitat-forming ecosystem engineer, was strongly associated with specific types of habitat (biogenic vs. bare rock). We examined field patterns and performed laboratory and field experiments to assess the nature of this association. Recruits were frequently found on the tunics of conspecifics and clumps of turfing coralline algae. Larvae preferred these same habitats in a series of laboratory settlement assays. Laboratory-reared juveniles (20- & 50-days-old) survived poorly on bare rock in the laboratory, while those on rugose surfaces – the tunic of adults and turfing corallines – showed high survivorship. Fieldcollected juveniles (< 2 cm) affixed to these rugose habitats also exhibited high survivorship in the field. We conclude that both pre and post-settlement processes determine spatial pattern in this important habitat-forming taxon. The acute sensitivity of juveniles to desiccating conditions was unexpected in an intertidal organism.