At first glance, the many concrete and steel office buildings under construction in and around Washington may seem incongruous.

After all, 1990 was the year proud Washington developers went begging for help to stay out of bankruptcy, the year real estate loans dragged banks into the red and businesses skipped from one building to another just to take advantage of plummeting rents.

And the Washington area is ushering in the new year with a whopping 41.6 million square feet of vacant office space, according to a market survey by the Cor/Net market research firm. That is more than four times the total office space in Crystal City and the equivalent of more than 11 Sears Towers. That is enough space to accommodate more than 160,000 workers and more than three times the amount of office space leased here during the past year.

None of which suggests that now is the time to build, but some construction crews are still at work.

According to Realty Information Group Inc., a McLean market research firm, 80 buildings with space for lease are under construction or are undergoing major renovations in the area.

In recent interviews, the developers behind many of the projects said they have good reasons for building:

Big commercial real estate ventures have the turning radius of the Titanic and many passed the point of no return more than a year ago.

Developers tend to keep developing until their financial backers apply the brakes; some lenders and investors kept their feet on the gas.

Developers affirm their faith in the "long term," even if the immediate future looks bleak.

Developers frequently are playing with other people's money; they stand to profit if things go right but have little financial responsibility if things go wrong.

Some businesses have ordered custom buildings; the 41.6 million square feet of vacant office space in the area did not suit these businesses.

Many real estate executives have an abiding belief in their own exceptionalism. They said their buildings are better than their competitors' and that the best buildings will succeed even in bad times.

While many buildings are under construction, few are being started. Some developers find consolation in the construction slowdown. When they embarked on their current projects, they expected more competition than they are getting.

Some developers said the office surplus will turn into a scarcity within a few years, especially in downtown Washington. If they can hold on long enough, their new buildings will become even more valuable. However, the same developers acknowledge those hopes are more rationalization than explanation for decisions they made when it seemed construction would not let up.

Many of the projects under construction have been in the planning stages for several years. Construction of a big downtown office building can take as much as two years. When some of the latest construction projects began, the real estate slump was only on the horizon, not staring developers in the face. As one leasing agent said of his building, "We started this before the industry started to fall apart."

The long lead time on commercial real estate developments makes it almost impossible for the industry to adjust quickly to market conditions and fuels the industry's wild swings from boom to bust.

"Developers are like a bunch of sheep," said downtown developer John E. Akridge III. "Everybody builds at one time, and then nobody builds."

Akridge is scheduled to complete a building at 1310 G Street NW in June. He began the project about two years ago.

The market's slow response to changing conditions cuts both ways. Akridge predicted that the downtown vacancy rate, which Cor/Net currently pegs at 11.1 percent, could decline to 1 percent in 1993 because few new buildings are being started. Akridge has another site waiting to be developed, where he could complete a building in time to take advantage of the tighter market, but he has been unable to persuade a Dutch financial partner that construction should begin now.

Other major office projects, such as the Portals at the base of the 14th Street Bridge and the project at 1100 New York Ave. NW, at the site of the old Greyhound bus terminal, might have been completed during more prosperous times if they had moved faster through the government approval process.

The Strong Flow of Cash The availability of funds is one of the few restraints on real estate development. Developers tend to produce what they can instead of just building to meet demand. In the real estate business, demand frequently imposes discipline only after supply has gotten out of hand.

Many developers need to keep developing just to stay in business. New ventures generate fees that enable them to meet payrolls even before buildings are completed. The fees, extracted from construction loans or the cash invested by a project's various owners, can weigh just as heavily in a developer's decision to build as the prospect of long-term profit from renting or selling the building.

Many developers are building now because they could raise money when others could not. Some have access to almost bottomless coffers, such as certain pension and life insurance funds. For example, Manufacturers Real Estate, the developer of 1100 New York Ave. NW, does not have to deal with bank loan committees. It is an arm of Toronto-based Manufacturers Life Insurance Co. and it is developing 1100 New York Ave. with the insurer's own cash.

Other developers defied the doubts implicit in most banks' refusal to lend and kept searching until they found more bullish backers. The searches often led them overseas, where enthusiasm for Washington real estate was slower to fade.

"By the time we got to the marketplace, it was probably safe to say that most of the U.S. institutions were not in a position to make the kind of construction loan that we were looking for," said Mary Mottershead, chief of the Washington office of Chicago-based Rubloff Real Estate and Capital Inc. Rubloff is developing an office building at the corner of 14th and H Streets NW, where a cave-in in November reversed months of work.

Rubloff's majority owner is ORIX Corp., a Japanese financial services company. By putting up a lot of its own cash, ORIX was able to help Rubloff obtain construction loan commitments from two Japanese banks, Mottershead said.

Taking a Longer View Office buildings are investments for the future. Even if they get off to a rocky start, developers predict the value of their buildings will grow at a healthy rate.

"I'm not one of the people that think the sky is falling," said John Chirtea, a partner in the Linpro Co. "It may be sagging a bit.

"We get blips in the market. We always get blips in the market. That's what we've got right now," said Chirtea, whose company is developing an office building at 1425 New York Ave. NW.

Developers are in the business of building, and if they must build somewhere, Washington seems like one of the more promising places. Few continue to view the Washington area as recession-proof, but real estate executives still consider the District to be one of the strongest real estate markets in the country. There is less confidence in the suburbs, where office vacancy rates run as high as about 30 percent in Frederick, Loudoun and Prince William counties, according to Cor/Net.

Some developers said they can afford to be patient until the market gradually turns around. Others lack the staying power to wait for the recovery. And, if they lease their buildings now at depressed rental rates, the buildings will not be worth as much to investors years hence.

Manageable Risks In the real estate business, the movers and shakers whose names adorn the skyline are not always the ones taking the biggest financial risks. They may have little of their own money on the line. The real risks may be reserved for players behind the scenes and far away.

Such is the case with the building under construction at 810 Seventh St. NW, a project of Washington-based Development Resources Inc.

In the fall of 1989, "when we started this project, it was obvious to us that there was going to be quite a bit of supply," said DRI chief executive Greg Fazakerly. "We decided to go forward anyway."

Fazakerly said DRI's partner in the venture is one of the largest home builders in Japan, SXL Corp. "They put up all the money," he said.

Some developers guaranteed their real estate loans, giving lenders the right to claim their homes, cars and bank accounts if their projects fail. Personal guarantees now threaten to bankrupt Washington real estate moguls like Conrad Cafritz and Dominic F. Antonelli Jr.

But other developers insulated themselves from financial liability, rendering themselves personally resistant to the market's overall sickness. They may not thrive, but they won't lose their shirts, either.

Akridge, for example, has sacrificed some potential gains to avoid backing his projects with a personal blank check. "We've given up profit for safety," Akridge said.

A Dutch institution representing pension funds put up 100 percent of the funds for Akridge's building at 1310 G St. NW.

Custom Building Market surveys show that less than 10 percent of the office space under construction in the Washington area has already been leased. But in rare instances, developers leased their buildings in advance to specific tenants.

The Oliver Carr Co., for example, is developing new downtown headquarters for MCI Communications Corp. and the American Association of Retired Persons. Several major corporations, including E-Systems Inc., British Aerospace PLC and Airbus Industrie, have commissioned new buildings in the suburbs.

Despite the overall abundance of vacant space, Comsat Video Enterprises Inc. could not find any suitable existing buildings in the location it desired. Therefore, Comsat has been exploring plans that would put some of its people in an existing building and others in a new specially built headquarters in Bethesda.

The so-called build-to-suit option is not just for corporate giants. A Northern Virginia china importer has commissioned a new home for its offices, showroom and storage on land it had bought earlier in Loudoun County, which has one of the highest vacancy rates in the area.

"They probably could have found suitable accommodations to suit their needs" for less money, said Charles Nugent of Coakley & Williams Inc., which has been hired to build the project.

Nugent said the china importer had wanted to own a custom-made home, "and someone convinced them" that the best approach was "to go out and buy a piece of dirt and put up a building on it."

Some developers take the vacancy rates less personally than others. They exude optimism because their buildings have unique features, such as granite exteriors and high ceilings, that will grab tenants and set them apart from the competition.

In fact, it seems that quite a few of the buildings now under construction will feature high ceilings.

And almost to a developer, they are building because they have exceptional locations, whether their buildings are in Chinatown or Germantown, near the Capitol or the White House or somewhere in between.

Despite years of go-for-broke development, it turns out that some of the Washington area's best sites were left for last. Exceptional locations like those can succeed in any market, or so the sales talk goes.

Among the exceptional, New York financier Thomas M. Flexner is no exception. Flexner's firm, Eastdil Realty Inc., helped pair Linpro with Nomura Securities Co., a Japanese company, for the building at 1425 New York Ave. NW. Some offices in the building will offer its tenants views of 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. NW. "It's an outstanding location," Flexner said. "The location puts it really in the epicenter between the historic Golden Triangle and the East End."

Robert Osinoff, director of leasing for Jones Laing Wootton USA and the leasing agent for the Herald Square Building at 1250 H St. NW, isn't pitching White House views. But the Herald Square building offers its own special vistas, he noted: views of New York Avenue NW, H Street NW and a church steeple.

The development team includes Walton Corp., a local developer, and Investcorp., the Arab concern that bought retailer Saks Fifth Avenue for $1.5 billion this year. The developers selected the site two years ago and started construction about six months ago, Osinoff said.

"They saw this as an excellent opportunity," he said. "It is the ... final crown in the setting of jewels in that particular block. Because of its uniqueness, they didn't want to wait regardless of the {real estate} climate."