By Christy Krueger –
AAA Landscape Celebrates Big Anniversary
Richard Underwood is an adrenaline junkie. He and his brother and business partner, Bob Underwood, spent their younger years competing as rodeo bull riders. More recently, Bob has discovered the adventure of swimming among sharks in various oceans around the world.
But his greatest thrill still comes from running his company, AAA Landscape, which is celebrating its 40th year.
The business has become the largest locally owned landscape company in Arizona, with Richard handling Tucson and Southern Arizona and Bob managing the Phoenix office and AAA’s 30-acre wholesale nursery, Arid Solutions. The company also has an office in San Antonio.
“I’m wired to be a landscaper since my father’s side is a long line of farmers,” Richard said. His father and uncle came to Arizona after the Korean War and established farms in Sahuarita and Continental Ranch, where, coincidently, AAA later won major landscape contracts. It was in those and other master-planned communities such as Rancho Vistoso and Dove Mountain that the brothers found their niche in landscape construction.
When the recession hit in 2008 and new construction dried up, Phoenix landscape contractors started coming to Tucson to bid jobs when work here already was in short supply. Once construction took off again in Maricopa County, they left Tucson, Richard said.
“I’m optimistic about things,” Richard said. “We aren’t back to how it was, but it was insanity.”
To combat the loss of new-build projects, Richard concentrated on maintenance, redesigning AAA’s older properties needing updates, and going back to more residential work where trends were steadily moving toward outdoor living and a more responsible stance on watering.
“The emphasis is on sustainable landscaping,” he said. “People are taking out grass and putting in drip irrigation and low-water-use landscaping. After the recession, people moved outdoors. They’re using fire pits, what looks like indoor furniture and shade structures.”
Updated technology also allowed AAA to go back to its clients to offer something new and simultaneously educate them on the benefits of sustainable practices.
“Irrigation systems have evolved,” Richard said. “There are now clocks (timers), such as at Rancho Sahuarita, with 64 stations. And we can program them from our office. Weather satellites give the dew point and humidity so a clock can adjust down. Or if there’s low humidity, it can adjust up to add water.”
The AAA staff regularly uses installation methods that promote sustainability, such as positioning plants in strategic locations to save on air conditioning costs. Also, selecting native plants and allowing them to grow in their natural form keeps them healthier, therefore decreasing maintenance needs.
While Richard derives pleasure from seeing the evolution and maturing of all AAA properties, the project that is most dear to his heart is the award-winning Underwood Family Sonoran Landscape Laboratory at the University of Arizona. After Richard and Bob both lost sons, they donated the oasis in their memories, as well as their father’s.
The shady, outdoor laboratory sits south of the College of Architecture, Planning and Landscape Architecture in what was once a parking lot. Margaret Livingston, professor of landscape architecture at the college, describes it as an educational garden designed to demonstrate conservation practices.
An 11,000-gallon cistern on the back of the architecture building collects roof runoff, drinking-fountain water and HVAC condensation, which then irrigates surrounding plants and fills a pond. Excess water from heavy rainfall also is collected and used on-site.
“We’re reusing and keeping it here so it’s not going out into the sewers and creating urban flooding,” Livingston said. In addition, the garden’s lower patio is made with a natural porous material, helping to reduce the urban heat effect.
With community frequently on his mind, Richard also was in on the ground floor in creating the First Impressions project. Landscaping and artwork were used to aesthetically improve South Tucson Boulevard between East Valencia Road and Tucson International Airport. A second phase will include solar lighting in the medians, which Richard expects will be completed by fall.
And when he’s ready for a break, he sneaks off to exotic locales such as Fiji, Mexico and South Africa for a bit of shark diving. “I needed a sport to find the adrenaline rush but that’s not so hard on my body (as bull riding). You’re so in the moment, it’s so exciting you don’t think about the danger, except when surrounded by great whites. That’s sheer terror.”