The large number of commercial construction projects in the Washington area that were deferred or abandoned last year is a sign that many developers are trying to fill existing office space before flooding the region with more space than they can reasonably expect to lease, local real estate experts said this week.

Developers' fears of a recession, rising construction costs, increased competition for tenants and lenders that are being more selective about which projects they finance are factors causing some area developers to slow their formerly rapid pace of new commercial construction.

While there were 427 projects started in the Washington area last year, which will add 26.4 million square feet of commercial office space, there also were 103 deferred projects, which would have added an additional 16.5 million square feet of office space, according to the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments' latest summary of commercial construction. In 1986, the study said there were only 66 deferred projects, which would have added 7 million square feet of space.

"I think it's a good sign," said Ray F. Smith Jr., president of the Northern Virginia Building Industry Association and president of Sequoia Building Corp., a local developer. "It shows that some builders are showing intelligent restraint in trying to bring the amount of supply in line with demand."

The "deferred" or "abandoned" category doesn't mean that a company has scrapped the development, but that the company will wait to construct the project until it has secured financing and can be assured of a steady supply of tenants.

Some industry experts said the increased number of delayed projects may lead to the construction of fewer speculative office developments in the years to come. With such office space, developers construct the buildings in hopes of attracting companies or associations to lease the space. Now, some builders said, many lenders have become wary of these speculative, sometimes riskier projects, preferring developments that already have a good portion of the space already leased and where a developer has a large amount of its own money invested in the project.

"It's no secret that Washington has no shortage of office space," said Thomas J. Owen, chief executive officer of Perpetual Savings Bank. "This is making lenders more selective of the type of transactions it will entertain. In some areas {of Washington}, there is more space than can be absorbed and a developer is foolish if he goes into these areas to build at 1988 costs, {with} the high rents and the fierce competition."

The District and Northern Virginia are two areas where high costs and pockets of overbuilding have forced many builders to postpone their projects. The two regions combined accounted for more than 87 percent of the postponed projects in the area during the fourth quarter last year, according to the Council of Governments' study. In the District, five projects were postponed during the period between October and December last year. Combined, they would have provided 2.5 million square feet of space.

In Northern Virginia, there were 19 deferred projects in last year's fourth quarter, which together would have added 2.9 million square feet of space. Suburban Maryland had eight postponed projects, which would have provided 831,500 square feet of space.

Commercial real estate experts said the increased number of deferrals shows that builders have learned from their experiences in the early 1980s, when many of them suffered losses after going ahead with office construction in the face of a recession. In such cities as Houston, Dallas and Denver, developers are only now slowly recovering from years of holding onto millions of square feet of vacant office space.

"Many people are trying to get tenants in as quickly as possible because {the economy} is so uncertain," said Fernando Barreuta, president of the D.C. Association of Realtors and president of Barreuta & Associates, a major commercial leasing firm. "Many developers tried to predict the market in the 1980s, but they didn't do too well."

Steven A. Grigg, president of the D.C. Building Industry Association and senior vice president of Western Development Corp., said the number of deferred projects has "helped protect the market."

F. Joseph Moravec, president of Leggat McCall/Grubb & Ellis Inc., a major commercial leasing firm, said the increase in delayed projects is good news for getting control of the amount of overbuilding, but said the slightest dip in demand or a rise in interest rates could throw the entire Washington area commercial office market out of line.

"It's not healthy if the market is wildly overbuilt or severely underbuilt," he said.