Only Houston and Chicago rank ahead of metropolitan Washington in new office buildings under construction, according to a 17-city survey by the Office Network, represented here by the Braedon Companies.

Only Houston leads the D.C. area in projections of absorption of space in 1981, showing nearly 10 million square feet of office space to be leased, about 3 million square feet more than in this area.

The District of Columbia leads in downtown or central business district space (about 3 million squares feet) to be leased, whereas Houston has 8 million feet outside the central district.

Another report, from Howard Ecker & Co. in Chicago, points out that a four-year pattern of soaring office rents has stimulated major building activity nationwide on a scale equal to the "boom years of the 1960s."

But the Ecker leasing-consulting firm also warns that construction of 16 million square feet of new space in the Washington area and 178 million feet in all 21 cities surveyed could be "more than business requires."

Julien J. Studley Inc. reported that commercial downtown leasing in the District set a new record in March and April, when 1,006,853 square feet of space was leased, more than five times the leasing total in that period in 1980. Two major leases accounted for much of the surge. One was to the federal government for space in a new building at 500 C St. SW and another for a new building in the 1100 block of Vermont Avenue to Riggs Bank.

Nevertheless, the Studley report also showed that leasing declined sharply in suburban Maryland and slightly in Northern Virginia, which now has a total of 10 million square feet of new and relatively new space just in Tysons Corner.